Local governance

Several different people e-mailed me this link to the Faribault Daily News article: Faribault City Council reins in city administrator authority.   The accompanying e-mail messages all said something like: “Look at this!  Interesting, huh?”

Faribault’s longtime city administrator (since 1991) is retiring and the Council has been reviewing the relationship of the Council to the administrator as it advertises for a new administrator:

Look through the new city administrator job description, and one phrase jumps out again and again: “Subject to the approval of the City Council.”…The message is clear: The city administrator works for City Council, not the other way around.

The staff-council relationship is a pretty common topic of conversation around Northfield, too.  Implicit in the messages referring to the Faribault article is that the Northfield City Administrator (or the staff generally) has too much power and the Council should seize the reins and retake control.

What the administrator and his staff (and they are his staff – only the Administrator is hired and fired by the Council) control, however, is not the decision-making, but the flow of information.  Staff assemble the Council packets and write the reports on issues before the Council.  The biggest challenge for the Council is getting sufficiently complete, relevant and timely information for action.

Consider the Catch-22 here.  If a Councilperson keeps asking for more information, this can be seen as micromanaging and not staying “at the policy level.”  If the Council doesn’t ask, then even our broadest policy decisions are based on unquestioned assumptions which may or may not be valid.

There’s no one solution to the problem.

Some information could be provided electronically.  Consider how other cities make city information available:

But there’s more.  City staff need to be convinced that sharing and explaining city information is of the utmost importance (read here about the distinction between transparency – which Ft. Collins and Burlington provide – and clarity – which they may not).

Which gets back to the Council.  We must keep working to refine that message and communicate it clearly to the City Administrator.  This means THE COUNCIL, not just me or other individual Council members, must act.  Clearly, we haven’t succeeded yet.

2 Replies to “Local governance”

  1. Once again, Councilor Buckheit, a clear analysis of the challenges facing the Council…
    But when has… or will… this discussion that the Council needs to have take place?
    If one heeds the Mayor’s statements of a couple weeks ago, it would not be a public discussion and yet it must be.

    With the Administrator looking at a job relocation, this policy discussion must not only be had, but actively put in place.

    Already the pundits/commenters at the newspaper are saying that NF cannot hold on to an administrator, and that is unfair criticism if the facts of the previous two, in addition to current are understood.

    I don’t buy the “they are the professionals” excuse; it’s a cop-out, IMO.
    I have been a city employee in Illinois; professionals prove their professionalism by being able to field criticism with facts, and backed-up ‘best management practices’, even cost benefit analysis, when needed.

    If the current administrator chooses to leave, then it is the perfect time to clarify what has become a murky chain of authority.

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