Monday, September 10, 2007

A conversation with the city administrator's most-trusted advisor

I had an interesting conversation with Mayor Larry Nelson Saturday Night as he packed for his trip to see Robert Redford. He disagreed strongly with this column I wrote regarding the hiring of the City Administrator. I want to be fair and explain his point of view as best I can:

1. The city administrator has time to focus on the minutiae of running of the city, leaving the mayor time to be the ambassador for the city.

2. The city administrator traditionally consults the mayor on different aspects of the budget, and Nelson has even convinced our previous administrator to remove some items.

3. Jim Payne did a good job.

4. The Common Council goes over the budget with a fine-toothed comb and no budget survives unchanged.

5. The city administrator is accountable because his performance is reviewed annually.

6. It’s likely the next city administrator will be more accountable than the last one, but it would be far better to negotiate that as part of the contract rather than show the city’s hand prior to negotiations. Besides, the Common Council will have the chance to review the contract at the same time they review the final candidate.

7. If there ever were a serious disagreement between the mayor and the city administrator, of course the mayor would oppose the city administrator’s budget publicly.

8. Since Waukesha has hired a city administrator, the infighting between departments has pretty much ended.

My response,
2, 3, 7 & 8. Well yeah, of course they’re fighting less. We’re spending the statutory limit, the stated goal of former City Administrator Jim Payne. And if the mayor disagrees with the city administrator, his only alternatives are to go public and/or veto the budget at the end. There is nothing, I repeat nothing, that requires the city administrator to consult with the mayor. So if the mayor did go public with a disagreement, wouldn’t that be worse than the amount of in-fighting before the city administrator position was created? Finally, shouldn’t there be some tension between the departments, some sense of competition over limited resources?

5, 6. Can the mayor fire the city administrator? No. Can the Common Council fire the city administrator? Currently only with a ¾ vote and for cause. The mayor can write a nasty note for the city administrator’s personnel file, his “permanent record.” However, living with a human resources guru like I do, I can tell you that those letters may never see the light of day, and the threat of giving a poor reference when the city administrator leaves is strongly limited by the threat of litigation.

The most powerful person in city government is currently unaccountable.

Alderman Kathleen Cummings has proposed the next city administrator be removable for “cause” by majority vote of the Common Council. If the mayor has different terms in mind, whether it is “at will” or a greater vote by the Common Council, better to put the structural change in now. After all, does the mayor seriously expect the Common Council to amend the terms of the contract once the candidate is selected and the contract has been negotiated? Or, if the aldermen do start futzing with the contract, does anyone think the candidate won’t walk?

As for “tipping the city’s hand,” given the near-absolute insulation of the previous city administrator, a matter of public record, wouldn’t it be better to start negotiations from a position that the terms and conditions of employment have dramatically changed?

Finally, does the city really want a city administrator that concerned about job security that he would demand terms that would insulate him from dismissal for even “cause”?

1,4 So if the mayor is free to not be encumbered with the budget details beforehand, certainly he is by the time the budget comes to his desk for approval? I believe Nelson takes his job as seriously as he believes the aldermen take their jobs, perhaps more so.

Which brings us back to what we expect from a mayor, the one elected official chosen by the entire city. We had an election last year, one still discussed in places like Milwaukee Magazine, that presented the voters a clear choice in philosophy of government. It was also an election between two candidates certainly capable of being mayor of Waukesha.

So why are we entrusting so much responsibility in a city official that is not elected, the city administrator, and why do we bother voting for the city administrator’s informal advisor? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to hire a lobbyist or a PR guy instead?

I’m offering the mayor a chance to respond here if he feels I’ve misrepresented his position at all. I understand he needs the practice blogging.

By the way, Milwaukee Magazine has put online their article about Waukesha Mayor Larry Nelson and his election last year. If you haven't read it yet, it features quotes from me, Jessica McBride, Bill Christofferson, State Representative Bill Kramer, and a host of others.

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