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OPINION - Against a city administrator

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Wausau's new city council was sworn in this week. And there's a new city council president, Romey Wagner. He's pushing for a more autonomous city council, separate from the Mayors office. Some of his ideas are good. But one idea, his biggest proposal, isn't.

First, the good. Wagner would like to see a sweeping change of the way committee assignments are handled at City Hall. If you think this is a small issue, it isn't. Most of the work of city government happens at the committee level. It's difficult for a council member who isn't on a specific committee to get changes made on items that a committee is working on. The full council, generally, votes up or down on a committee's work product.

Under the current system the mayor makes the committee assignments and picks the committee chairs. And Jim Tipple has used that power to make sure his allies are in key places. Those who are more fiscally conservative than the mayor find themselves in the minority when things like budgets, capital expenditures and big public works projects are going through the committee process. That should be changed.

Alderman Wagner's reform would allow the city council to determine its own committee assignments, and let the committees choose their own chairs. That's a good check-and-balance between the city council and the mayors office. It will lead to more give and take, and will ultimately control costs and save the city money.

The bad idea is a proposal to move Wausau to a city administrator form of government. The city administrator would run the city on a day-to-day basis, with the mayor responsible for big-picture policy issues only.

What are the problems with the city administrator model? First (and most importantly), the city administrator is unelected, and is unaccountable to the voters. This is a person who will have a substantial amount of power and cannot be removed from office by the citizens. In some communities, the administrator becomes a shield that elected officials hide behind when tough, unpopular decisions are made. Sometimes the administrator becomes the most powerful person in city government; in other situations the administrator is thought of as in the camp of a few influential council members and the admin can get run out of town once those people are no longer in office.

Is the administrator model all bad? No. It makes sense in smaller communities where aldermen and the mayor are all part-time. In larger cities, voters have a right to expect that the people they elect are actually in-charge.

Chris Conley
4.17.14

Image: Wausau City Hall from wsau.com.