City Manager vs. Mayor

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Would a City Manager Better Serve Superior?

In a previous article we examined the current form of government used by Superior. As stated in that article, all Wisconsin municipalities that have a mayor are required by law to use a “weak” mayor structure.

FR Buechner Named City Manager | The Evening Telegram, Superior, WI 5/27/1941 | Source: Superior Library

FR Buechner Named City Manager | The Evening Telegram, Superior, WI 5/27/1941 | Source: Superior Library

A quick internet search coupled with some adept research by Teddie Meronek with the Superior Library has revealed that Superior hasn’t always had a mayor/council government.

Superior residents voted in a council/manager government structure prior to WWII. The vote on April 2nd, 1940 approved the new municipal structure by a tally of 7320 to 5055.

The following May, city council president James Murphy announced that F.R. Buechner of Piqua, Ohio would become Superior’s first City Manager. He took the reins on June 3rd, 1941 at a salary of $6500 annually.

An article in the Superior Telegram at the time reported that in addition to serving as city manager of Picqua, Buechner had also previously served as in the same role in Gladstone, Michigan (1924-1935) and Grand Ledge, Michigan (1923).

His resume indicated that he had obtained the second lowest per capita cost of municipal government in the state of Michigan at the time, had “reduced the city debt by 70%, and balanced the budget despite a large improvement program and a lower assessed valuation and tax rate.” 

While in Picqua (1935-1941), he was said to have balanced the budget, and met bonds and debts at maturity date. “All through the depression, payrolls and bills were met on time without any curtailment of essential services or a tax increase.” 

Research by Teddie Maronek reveals that after the resignation of R.L. Taylor, who was the last manager hired by the city , R.E. McKeague was appointed acting city manager in February of 1959. He served in that position until April of 1959 when Bruce Hagen’s father, Lawrence Hagen, was elected mayor. Thus ended Superior’s eighteen year experiment with a city manager.

The Evening Telegram, Feb. 25, 1959 | Source: Superior Library | Explore Superior

The Evening Telegram, Feb. 25, 1959 | Source: Superior Library

The city charter was re-organized to provide for a mayor and “aldermen” for each of ten districts to constitute a common council. Our city has been operating in that fashion for the past six decades.

Is it time to revisit that decision in hopes of reviving Superior’s future…it is time to go back to the future?

Forms of Municipal Government

By state law, a municipality must have a charter or legal document that defines how the government entity in question is organized, how power is assigned and granted, and how the municipal government will function. Basically, what the municipal charter does is define how the government will operate and whom within the government will make what decisions and by what procedures.

Historically, there are five forms of government, mayor/council; council/manager; commission; town meeting; and representative town meeting. Superior currently has the mayor/council government structure in place, which most people understand. In this article, we will look at the council/manager form of government.

Council/Manager Government

According to the National League of Cities (NLC), the characteristics of a Council/Manager form of municipal government include the following:

  • City council oversees the general administration, makes policy, sets budget
  • Council appoints a professional city manager to carry out day-to-day administrative operations
  • Often the mayor is chosen from among the council on a rotating basis

The NLC goes on to say that the Council/Manager is the most common form of government in America. According to surveys by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), this form of government has grown from 48% usage in 1996 to 55% usage in 2006. They went on to say that voters across the nation tend to support modifications in how mayors are elected and decreasing the power or authority of the mayor.

It is not uncommon for cities to adopt a mix of government structural features over time. Most commonly, a mixing of features  occurs between the mayor/council and the council/manager forms of government. The most common change voted into municipal government is the addition of a City Manager or Chief Administrative Officer.

Were Superior to adopt a council/manager form of government, we could still have a mayor, but that position would more likely be filled from within the council. Much as the Superior city council elects a president, whose job is to lead the council meetings in the absence of the mayor, the council could elect a mayor from among its ranks. 

Under this system, the day to day operations of the city would be handled by the city manager with oversight by the council. The city manager would serve at the pleasure of the city council and could be replaced for cause. In addition to a strong mayor form of government, Duluth also has a city manager.

Can Superior Afford a City Manager?

Currently the mayor receives a salary in excess of $80K annually, a car and an expense account. Were Superior to adopt a council/manager form of government, the current mayor’s salary could be assigned to the city manager. City councilors currently receive approximately $7K annually.

The “mayor” could be elected by the council in place of the current council president, and that role would be that of someone to lead the council meetings, and to assume ceremonial duties from time to time. Currently, city administration is managed by a dozen department heads who answer to the mayor. Replacing the mayor with a city manager might offer more accountability and continuity in city government.

Why a Different Form of City Government Makes Sense

Our current “weak” mayor system, mandated by state law, isn’t always conducive to effective leadership. Mayors come and go, yet the administrative department heads tend to stay on long-term. This is a great provided the department heads have the best interests of the city in mind, and if they have a stake in our city. Unfortunately, what has evolved in Superior is the reality that many of our department heads do not live within the city limits…or even in the state!

This is not to say that those currently guiding our city are not doing a good job. However, if you don’t live in the city where you are guiding policy some might say you don’t have enough “skin in the game” to look out for the long-term interests of the city. We will look into the residency of city department heads in a future article.

A strong mayor system of municipal government can provide effective leadership and presumably more direct control over department heads. However, this is not permitted by state law, only a weak mayor/strong council is allowed in Wisconsin.

This brings us back to the council/manager form of government. The council/manager system is the fastest growing form of government in the country. Here is why it is so popular:

  • The council/manager form of government frees up the elected body to establish policy
  • Policy is then carried out by the council appointed city manager and administrative staff
  • The city manager is accountable to the entire city council for implementation of council policy
  • City manager is also accountable for the satisfactory management of day-to-day administration of municipal duties.

One benefit of this form of government is that it encourages neighborhood input into the process due to the influence that the council has over the city manager. Additionally, when a city manager serves at the behest of the council, he/she is less likely to be influenced by special interests or politics. They are charged with administering city business according to the policies adopted by a majority of city councilors.

Transparency and Open Government

A council/manager governmental structure may encourage improved communication between citizens and their government. Each member of the city council would have an equal voice in the creation and implementation of city policies as well as oversight of the administrators running the city.

Neighborhood leaders and various businesses, groups and communities within the city would be able to bring their issues directly to the city council for a hearing, with out the filter of an elected mayor. When the voice of the people is heard by a council that then directs a city manager, decision making is more likely to be implemented via citizen input.

Representative democracy is front and center in council/manager government, and presumably the city manager is less likely to be manipulated due to political pressures. Transparent government, where those running the city find it in their best interests to share more information rather than less, will likely result in a more efficiently run and responsive government.

Special Interests and Partisan Politics Diffused

In a system where the involvement of the entire elected body is required for action, decision are more likely to be made in a balanced manner. All interests in a decision can be heard, rather than just those that are well funded and/or “connected”.

This is a benefit to the council/manager approach compared to the strong mayor/council system where a single elected official (the mayor) can influence decisions or enact policy independent of a city council.

Under the council/manager system, qualifications and performance are the criteria used to select a city manager rather than the political acumen required to become elected mayor. City managers typically have advanced degrees in public administration and years of experience before ever obtaining the position of city manager.

They are also schooled in how best to select department heads, how to oversee human resources, and how to achieve the efficient and effective delivery of public services. All the while, the city council retains ultimate control and ensures accountability by the manager and his/her department heads to the elected body.

Compare this to a situation where someone can be elected mayor with little or no experience running a large organization. Is it any wonder that every so often we hear of mayors of cities going to prison for a variety of offenses? Political considerations and favors accumulated may overcome common sense on occasion.

Council/Manager Government Works

Over 90,000,000 Americans live in cities with council/manager forms of government! This trend is growing because it works. Council/manager governments are found in thousands of communities both large and small. Some of the more notable examples include Dallas, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and San Jose (home to Silicon Valley).

According to a brochure published by the ICMA

“Many local governments have found that their overall costs are actually reduced under competent management. Savings can come from decreased operating costs, increased efficiency and productivity, improved revenue collection, and effective use of technology. The economic health of the community may also benefit from implementation of improved business development and retention strategies.”

Sometimes cities and counties even merge into a combined city/county unit in an effort to avoid duplication of services and to have a greater impact on the management of a region. One example is Broomfield, Colorado, which consolidates the city and county of Broomfield into one municipality. The population of Broomfield is currently about 59,000, compared to a Superior/Douglas County population of about 44,000.

It is likely that such a merger in Douglas County would not be approved by the surrounding towns and villages, however as the most populous municipality, as the county seat, and the home of the County Courthouse, Superior already dominates much of the political activity in Douglas County. This possibility should at least be considered.

A Topic for Conversation

While it is unlikely that any current candidate for mayor would suggest that we do away with the job of mayor, it is certainly a fair question ask them. Without exception, the current field of mayoral candidates recognizes the financial peril that Superior finds itself in.

All of the candidates have been supportive of redevelopment of Superior, while also expressing a concern for the long-term viability of our community. Given that some have been critical of how past and current administrations have run the city, it would be instructive to hear their thoughts on the prospect of changing our city government from a mayor/council to a council/manager form of government.

Join us at the Superior Library on Thursday, January 19th for the mayoral forum that we are hosting beginning at 5:30 p.m. This and many other important matters will be discussed and you will be able to learn how the candidates respond in real time. 

The public is invited to attend, and Explore Superior will also broadcast the event via Facebook LIVE through our Facebook Page. Additionally, Community TV will video tape the entire event and later broadcast it on local public access channels. We will publish that broadcast schedule when it becomes available.

See other Explore Superior articles related to the mayoral campaign:

City Government in Superior | (Dec. 30, 2016) 
Paine Issues Mayoral Platform | (Dec. 30, 2016)  
Hermanson Issues Mayoral Platform | (Dec. 21, 2016) 
Mayoral Candidates Support Better City Superior | (Dec. 16, 2016) 
Kalee Hermanson Announces Mayoral Candidacy | (Dec. 1, 2016) 
Brent Fennesey Announces Mayoral Candidacy | (Nov. 28, 2016) 
Jim Paine Announces Mayoral Run | (Nov. 23, 2016) 
Hagen Resigns Effective April | (Oct. 27, 2016) 




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