Thursday, August 23, 2007

Unaccountable administration

Mayor Larry Nelson has put forth the project plan for selecting the next City Administrator, a title once granted by the Common Council is almost impossible to remove. Since we're so willing to dispense with accountability, perhaps we should consider only applicants with offspring and make the position hereditary, making the position almost totally independent of parliament. Charles I should have had such latitude.

The Spring City Chronicle (going "All Wigderson All The Time") takes issue with my column in two areas:

James supports the full council being involved in the interview process and a simple majority vote by the Council to remove the next administrator. I respectfully disagree with both points. First, I’ve watched council meetings where the statement process by each alderman goes on for hours. An interview process for this position would be needlessly long and probably unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment for the interviewees. We’re not selecting a Supreme Court judge, after all. Plus, this will probably end in the 13-2 or 14-1 vote which defines nearly every vote the council takes. Second, I feel that a simple majority vote makes the position a political one. I look at the position as a quasi-civil service one and therefore, the administrator should not have to suck up to aldermen to avoid being removed for political reasons. Removal “with cause” is better, but define “cause”. Pretty vague. A two-thirds vote is an acceptable figure to me.
Having the full council involved in the process was not my position, but Alderman Vitale's, based upon precedent. Alderman Tortomasi's position was to have the entire council able to sit in on interviews even if they are not active participants, a position probably closer to my own. I suspect only a few aldermen would take advantage, anyway, so it would be politically smart for the Mayor to agree.

Whether the entire council interviews candidates or merely a select committee is really less important than the nature of the post itself. The city administrator will be responsible more than any other public figure in the city for setting policy by overseeing operations, formulating the budget and setting the level of taxation. Yes, there is a check, in the power of the Common Council to amend or reject the city budget, and in the veto power of the Mayor. But that check is only effective when used.

Meanwhile, if the public is unhappy with how the city is governed neither the public nor its elected representatives would have any recourse. Elections, as the last election for mayor proved, could become nearly meaningless in setting the overall direction of the city. Elected officials have responsibilities beyond mere constituent services, they are charged by the public to collectively set the long-term goals and pursue the vision of the community.

If the administrator is to become a true civil service position, then let him be answerable to either the Common Council or the Mayor who in turn can be held accountable by the public.

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