Thursday, January 24, 2008

CA-01-08: City Administrator

Alderman Israel has introduced a charter amendment that would redefine the responsibilities of the city administrator and other key city roles, cementing his position of guru of governmental operations.

CA-01-08 would do a number of things:

-Give the city council supervisory power over the expenditure of public money and delivery of municipal services; however, with the specific exclusion that no alderman may "direct the work of a director or an employee of a department".

-Create permanent, full-time support positions exclusively for the aldermen: budget analyst/financial advisor, research assistant, and administrative assistant. The day-to-day functions of these individuals would be determined by a majority vote of the aldermen.

-Specify the city administrator as the boss of daily city operations.

-Specify the Mayor's primary duties as "formulation of policy and long-range plans, the recommendation of implementing legislation; and the general supervision of the city's finances".

-Have the city administrator, rather than the mayor, appoint department directors. The city administrator's appointments would have to be approved by the mayor and confirmed by the city council.

-Make it harder to fire the city administrator, by requiring the Mayor AND four or more of the aldermen to support removal.

What The 'Players' Think About This

Alderman Israel's head is in the right place--he wants to install more checks on the Mayor's power and give more power and resources to the city council. From his guest column in The Sun:
An election does not guarantee that a mayor will have the managerial skills
needed to effectively supervise the delivery of routine municipal

It has long been recognized that there is a distinction between policy and
administration. This distinction is reflected in the existing charter, which
characterizes the mayor as the chief executive officer and the city
administrator as the chief administrative officer.

The proposed charter amendment that I will introduce tomorrow would give
the city administrator the initiative in hiring and firing decisions. To make
sure that there is accountability to the voters, an appointment would be subject
to approval by the mayor and the consent of the council. Dismissal would be
subject to approval by the mayor.

His column mainly serves to detail the provisions of the bill; however, the implied theme is to guarantee professional management and accountability. The column is short on rhetoric, but does offer an attempt at persuasion:
As the city's residents prepare to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the
granting of the first charter, nothing could be more appropriate than amending
the charter to provide for more effective professional administration and yet
retain accountability of elected officials through the electoral process.

The Mayor, for her part, is not happy. The Sun gave Mayor Moyer her say, and here's how she made use of it:
I am amazed that Alderman Richard Israel, who has spent most of his career as a lawyer in the office of the attorney general, would begin 2008 with an assault on
representative government as he does with Charter Amendment CA-01-08.

Article IV, Section 2A and Article 5, Section 1 of the proposed
amendment muzzle the aldermen and mayor by making any direction to city
employees relative to policy an action of misconduct subject to recall. This is
a gag rule that renders null and void the vote of the public for representative
government. Like Oliver Cromwell in the 1600s, Alderman Israel would transfer
the essential powers of government from the mayor and city council to a non elected

I mentioned above that Alderman Israel's column was devoid of rhetoric, and the Mayor was certain not to make that mistake, as you can see. After defending her record of accomplishments as the chief executive and describing the adverse costs of the proposed amendment, she provided some fabulously pertinent soundbites:
This amendment would not be implemented until I am out of office. However,
I believe that the deeper implications of this proposal are grave. This is not a
simple "clarification of roles." Passing this amendment would result in a
fundamental change in governance.

If we really want to shift power to a non elected bureaucrat,
it would be more honest to eliminate the mayor as chief executive and reduce the
salary to $25,000 for time spent cutting ribbons, leading parades and making
speeches. The salaries of the aldermen could also be eliminated and council
meetings held less frequently.

Our current system of checks and balances may be frustrating and slow,
but government is meant to be as it was established in Maryland in 1632 -- open,
constituent-based, respecting the will of the people, arguing, debating and
finally coming to consensus. This is democracy.

What Do I Think About This

Despite what the Mayor would have you believe, this charter amendment is nearly meaningless. If you are going to empower a non elected bureaucrat, you had better guarantee accountability, and this bill falls short.

Let's elaborate. The problems with the current form of government--at least those problems potentially addressed by this CA--are as follows:

1. Too much power for the mayor. The mayor is the chief executive, the chief operating officer, and the chief ambassador.

2. City administrator position is useless. The city administrator, who should be a strong chief operating officer, serves at the pleasure of the mayor, makes less money than the department heads he is supposed to supervise, and has no authority to hire or fire. Even if he did, the Mayor can fire him at a whim, so if he wants to keep his job, he will do what she wants. The result is that his duties are controlled by the Mayor.

3. Poor treatment of city council. For goodness sake, they don't have offices, staff, desks, or even letterhead, they work all day long, and they get paid $12,600 per year. Awful.

Let's start with the good things. Providing a shared research staff for the aldermen is absolutely a good thing. As everyone knows, famously in the case of Alderman Arnett, the alderman have an impossible time keeping up with their duties and responding to citizen concerns. To the extent that this staff helps them, it is a good thing.

Unfortunately, that's where the good ends. The shortfalls with this bill are:

-The city administrator is still appointed by the Mayor. The city council cannot hire him, and they cannot fire him without approval from the mayor. The bill gives the council the "power and duty to conduct oversight of the expenditure of public money and the delivery of municipal services", but provides no vehicle for that oversight and even provides a specific restraint on what they can do. To me, the council gains no more power and can no more effectively guarantee accountability or effective government.

-Alderman Israel supports this bill because it weakens the Mayor; Mayor Moyer opposes this bill because it weakens the Mayor; but in actuality, the bill does not create a weak mayor. The Mayor is still the direct supervisor of the city administrator, but it prohibits her from directing the work of the directors. The Mayor's power is reduced (good) but is not given to anyone else (bad)--it's like saying "you are no longer responsible for daily operations, but you are the supervisor of the person who is responsible. And, if he screws up, we are going to hold you accountable, even though you can't affect the things we are holding you accountable for". Talk about a mixed message--even I'm confused.

-The bill provides no more incentive to be a good alderman. A support staff is not enough. Provisions should be made for office space and salary increases.

If you are going to have a strong Mayor, you cannot prohibit her from directing the departments. If you are going to have a weak Mayor, she cannot be involved at all in operations, and the city council must hire and fire the city manager (or administrator). In between solves nothing, and this bill is in between.

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