Counterpoint: Behind the curtain at City Hall
Preface Commentary by: John Diers
Who’s in charge at Prior Lake City Hall? The conventional wisdom says its our elected officials, mayor and city council who make policy and are accountable to voters. We learned all about it in civics class. That’s how it’s supposed to be. Unfortunately, it’s not. There’s a shadow government that actually runs the city; specifically, an unelected city staff; the city manager and those reporting to him, who are in charge, and they are accountable to no one. It’s not just Prior Lake, but other communities, as well, and it leads to policymaking that doesn’t always reflect the best interests and the wishes of residents and taxpayers.Is there an alternative? Yes, a strong mayor and council form of government with a full time elected mayor and administrator combined in one office and a full time city council that’s there and directly accountable to voters. Don’t like what they do? It’s their job that’s on the line. Vote them out. Now, that’s accountability.Times have changed. It’s the twenty first century and governing is a full time job.
COMMENTARY By Thom Boncher JULY 24, 2015 — 6:04PM
Behind the curtain at City Hall:
“All is not golden” when elected council members and professional staff don’t clearly understand their roles.
Toward the end of June, the Star Tribune reported on the “long and thorny debate” in Lake Elmo over whether to allow or prevent expansion (“Civic turmoil, turnover persist in Lake Elmo,” June 21). Noted was the fact that “this month’s messy departure of the city’s top administrator marks the eighth time that job has changed hands since 2003.”
On July 22, we read that a “survey of Golden Valley officials reveals tension in the ranks” (“Survey says: All is not golden”).
There are some things readers should be aware of when they encounter such stories.
First, city staffs have tremendous power to influence city councils, and to direct council action to projects or actions that staff deems important — even if taxpayers and voters disagree.
Second, city councils are charged with making decisions, which city staff (in theory) must then implement.
Third, in some cities, these two facts are in conflict.
Lake Elmo has a city council/city administrator form of government. Golden Valley has a city council/city manager form of government. The difference is significant.
The position of city administrator is purely ministerial, with the city council making most decisions about how the city is run, and the administrator acting on those decisions.
The position of city manager is, well, managerial, with the city council setting a budget and broad guidelines, which the city manager is tasked to meet. A city manager usually has authority to hire and fire, and to control spending.
Voters are the wild card in this game. Most of them don’t understand or care about the structure of their city’s government. They care about their taxes, or about certain specific issues such as growth/no growth. Voters elect city councils. City staffs need to recognize that voters set the tone, and that if quarrelsome or abrasive people are being elected to council seats, it’s because voters believe those traits represent what they, the voters, want.
In the case of Golden Valley, the survey cited by the Star Tribune was heavily weighted toward city staff. Does anyone really think employees would blame themselves for any part of the dysfunction they see?
In my experience as a city council member, it was painfully clear to me that most of my colleagues, for whatever reason, didn’t want to press issues.
Rare was the city council person who would actually put an item on the agenda. Most were content to deal with what they were given. And what they were given came from staff, which would sometimes cook a project for months or years, eliminating options and obstacles before presenting the issue to the council.
Council members were then faced with the unenviable task of choosing whether to countermand the results of all that staff effort, or accept it and do something voters didn’t really want.
Occasionally, a council member would take an issue to city staff for consideration as a possible action item. If the issue was innocuous, it would get put on the agenda. Otherwise, staff would “explain” to the council member why the issue was a bad idea.
The result was that voters never knew what went on behind the scenes — never knew the true decision making process.
Worse, they never knew that by the time an issue actually made it to the City Council agenda, all the decisions had been made and voter input had been rendered meaningless.
Not every issue plays out this way, and the situation can be better or worse in any particular town regarding any particular issue. And city council members are obliged to listen to input from city staff.
The City Council members in Golden Valley may well have overstepped the bounds of their position. Maybe they feel they need to, in order to make sure the city is going where the voters want it to go. Whether staff likes it or not, voters chose the council.
For those of you who are curious, I lost my bid for re-election, probably because I was too abrasive for local voters. It happens.
Thom Boncher served on the Jordan City Council from 2010 to 2014.