I dislike change as most do. We grow accustomed and comfortable with a way of doing things and it becomes the only way. Moving, job changes and breakups are not always easy but we must adapt and grow accustomed to another way.
We have various levels of government in the United States, National, state and local. As with businesses of every kind, times change, and the business or governmental entity that does not adapt to massive change becomes archaic. In government we would say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Being broken shouldn’t always be the issue. My first business desk top computer cost nearly $5000.00. Today we can buy five computers for that price each being 100 times more powerful and smaller in size. Our newest appendage, the cell phone, is changed every few years even though the old one still works. We upgrade for better service, more convenience and ease of operation. So too it should be in public service.
Local government in the US has basically three forms with some variation. We probably know that some US cities are governed under the Commission Form of local government. This is the oldest form of municipal government but today is utilized by only one percent of US cities. The Commission form provides for the election of three commissioners who function as the city’s legislative body and as certain city department heads. There are also other Department heads elected including the sheriff, the clerk, treasurer, assessor, prosecuting attorney, coroner and others depending on the jurisdiction. That’s a busy Election Day and we probably can’t even name some of these office holders. There is also a strong mayor and weak mayor form. My preference for local, city or county, is the Council-Manager Form. It relieves Election Day stress and provides more efficient, more effective and a more business like way of providing needed services not that business like is always so good.
How often do we hear or say government should be run more like a business. The concept of the council-manager form of government was developed in the late 19th Century. The council-manager has an elected council to legislate and set policies and a strong, non-political executive appointed by the council to run the government and implement policies. This form focuses on insuring services are provided with efficiency and integrity.
Originally supported by chambers of commerce and other business groups, the commission plan spread rapidly from 1907 to 1920. It was viewed as an important plan leading to expertise and efficiency in our cities and counties. Some questioned the plan because they viewed it as an effort by business interests to take influence away from working people. Many cities then had a growing industrial workforce made up of various immigrant groups. Having commissioners elected at large, city or countywide, rather than by districts diluted the voting power of these workers. Bad motives are often wrapped in good intentions.
If an area doesn’t have the diverse population of other places then why change or upgrade? Part of it is the limited number of commissioners. The three commission format allows for potential damage that can result when it takes just two commissioners getting elected and flexing their muscles to pass laws that do not serve the interest of most people in the community. The potential for mischief is evident.
Richard S. Childs, often called the father of the City Manager plan, worked through the National Municipal League to make the manager plan rather than the commission plan the local government of choice for business-minded reformers. Childs and others pointed out that the specific departmental interests of commissioners often caused internal squabbling and that the absence of a chief executive could result in a lack of leadership resulting in leaderless bickering. The Council-Manager addresses those concerns by electing commissioners, some from districts, others county wide who appoint a CEO, the manager.
Let’s be realistic. I get up and go to work everyday. I pay my taxes, I’m a good neighbor, I help people. Does it matter who’s sitting in a commissioner’s chair? Having worked in government and later for land developers dealing with government, it matters. When people are asked what are their major concerns about their town or county, the answers are often repetitive. Usually growth heads the list, which causes traffic, over crowded schools, usually crime gets tied in too, long commutes to work, delays in services like trash pick up and others. For elected officials I anticipate that keeping up with the community needs can be difficult. Having worked with land developers here in the US I know maintaining an influential position with the elected leaders
is a major concern. This doesn’t mean pay offs and money under the table but it does mean influence which is a commodity. Working every day and family limit our involvement with our commissioners. Two or three times a year particularly in election years our commissioners hear from us. Those who rely on both government approval and government services for business need this commodity, the ability to influence. For them contact is a daily activity. We must understand the messaging process. People like real estate developers and other businesses often through the Chamber of Commerce are constantly in the face of commissioners or their staff. There is usually a combination of sought after needs roads widened, water lines extended, tax changes, new housing, etc. linked with “you are doing a great job and helping our “business” community.” Every election year they raise money for their chosen favorites. Politicians hear this, believe it, accept their election contributions and take their calls. Influence not absolute but solidified.
If we want to limit influence or at least give us all a more equal voice, then the Council- Manager form is better by design. For example, seven elected commissioners, 4 from specific districts, creates an obstacle to this influence. Commissioners meeting in a public forum means more discussion with more members participating. It is more difficult to constantly influence 7 people than it is 2, particularly when you add into the discussion a professional, knowledgeable and experienced manager, the CEO. The ability to influence is much more difficult and tempered by a rational public discussion on issues. This is the business concept of a board of directors and a CEO. If you love business then should like this. Will it be the silver bullet to insure the efficient, professional, effective government that we want, probably not 100%. This upgrade results in a more open discussion and input by more of us. Get your voice listened to and actually be heard. The Council-Manager form leads to more effective and efficient government which means an improved quality of life for the community.
Any system mostly is neutral and the good or bad dependent on the people who make up the system. The system properly designed can provide defensive measures against influence peddling and out right corruption. When it comes to local government the Council-Manager form is intended to and does throw up some road blocks to better serve the public good.