Scoppe: The myth of the apolitical, professional city manager

Associate EditorNovember 26, 2013 

— INTERSPERSED with their dire warnings of corruption and patronage and bossism, the opponents of putting the mayor in charge of Columbia’s government like to talk nobly of the professionalism of the current system.

It’s right there on the yard signs: “Professional Manager, Not a Politician.”

And here’s how the director of the International City/County Management Association explained the council-manager form of government in a guest column we published earlier this month: “A highly trained, nonpartisan, experienced professional manages the city’s day-to-day operations. The manager’s appointment should be based on his or her professional experience, managerial qualifications, and education; political affiliation should have no influence on the appointment.”

If you value expertise and professionalism as I do, that can sound alluring.

Until you see how it actually works.

Until a city hires someone with so little experience that it had to reduce its job requirements in the middle of the search process in order to even consider her. Until a city hires someone it’s willing to reduce its job requirements for because of what can be seen only as political reasons.

Teresa Wilson had been an assistant city manager just 18 months when the Columbia City Council named her city manager in January. She had worked for the city less than six years, and most of her work there and elsewhere was in government relations, which is a fancy term for lobbyist.

Her predecessor, Steve Gantt, had a resume closer to what the professional-manager advocates advocate, but even he had been an assistant manager just seven years, and had worked before that in private construction.

Before him we had Charles Austin, who may have been a fine police chief but was Peter Principled into the city manager job by council members who needed to make a quick decision and thought his popularity could serve to their political advantage. He actually did a better job than should have been expected, but in the end it was clear that this wasn’t the sort of job he was trained to do.

On paper, Leona Plaugh was precisely what the professionalism advocates had in mind. But she was forced out after just 18 months in the wake of a series of heavy-handed moves that included an attempt to muzzle City Council members who were criticizing her and culminated in the discovery of a memo in which she outlined a plan to “destroy” several city staff members.

Ms. Plaugh, now a member of the City Council and one of the most vocal opponents of strong mayor, opposed hiring Ms. Wilson, saying she wasn’t experienced enough for the job. And yet, there she is.

But let’s set aside what we know about the Columbia City Council’s track record with city managers and pretend that it routinely hires a “highly trained, nonpartisan, experienced professional.” There’s still a problem with making a bureaucrat the city’s chief executive, and it is interwoven with the model itself.

That democracy problem

The professional-manager system was an early 20th century reform derived from the corporate-governance model, in which a trained professional who runs the business reports to and receives direction from a board of directors, which makes policy.

And that’s a great model … if we’re trying to run a corporation.

We’re not. We’re trying to run a government. And as useful as it is for government to borrow from the best practices of corporate America, there are essential differences between government and business. And those differences demand different types of leadership.

The primary goal of a business is to make money. The primary goal of a government is to provide services to the public that the public wants and needs. That needs to be done in the most efficient way possible — and that’s a place to look to the corporate model — but there are important steps that occur before the delivery of services.

With the occasional exception, the only things a corporation has to consider are whether its actions will help or hurt its quest to make money, and whether they’re legal. If it wants to sell products that kill people — say, cigarettes — that’s OK, as long as the law allows it and it doesn’t hurt the business. If it wants to provide services only for the wealthy, that’s OK, as long as it can make money doing that. If it wants to put people with questionable values in charge, that’s OK, as long as doing so doesn’t drive away customers. If it wants to give outrageous perks to its top executives, that’s OK, as long as that doesn’t damage the bottom line.

A government has to make decisions that are in the best interest of all its citizens. It has to balance the competing value of majority rule with protecting the rights of the minority. It has to obey the Constitution — most of which does not apply to private individuals and businesses. It has to guard against its officials and employees taking actions that could benefit them personally — which businesses can prohibit or not, depending on what they consider important. And since government is the law enforcer, it has an obligation to set its ethical standards higher than businesses.

Council as boardof directors?

The corollary to a city manager acting like a chief executive of a business is that a city council should act like a corporate board. And some corporate boards do in fact act the way we would want our City Council to act — setting policy and guiding and directing the professional who works for them. But many, perhaps most, corporate boards act as little more than rubber stamps for the CEO.

In fact, some would argue that this is why that model works for corporations, which need to have a decisive executive who has the power to act as he sees fit. The board merely serves as a safety valve, to step in during those extraordinary occasions when the CEO goes rogue.

And we’re supposed to feel good about the idea that our elected representatives are relegated to the role of corporate board members? We’re supposed to think that this gives voters a greater say in our government than a system in which an elected mayor makes executive decisions? Really?

Of course cities likewise need strong executives who are empowered to act decisively. But here’s the problem: If professional city managers actually fulfill that role, then they are emasculating our elected representatives. And if they don’t fulfill that role — and I don’t think they do, certainly not in Columbia — then we need someone who can.

While I think it’s essential that we rely on professionals, we need to rely on them to do the things they are trained to do. Lawyers are professionals, but you wouldn’t want one to perform open-heart surgery on you; physicians are professionals, but you wouldn’t want one managing your portfolio.

And you just can’t get around the fact that the sorts of decisions we need the head of the executive branch of our government to make are not only management decisions; they also are political decisions. Very much like a chief executive of a corporation, the job of a chief executive of a government goes well beyond merely making sure that personnel and procurement policies are followed and that the government runs efficiently. It is to balance the often contradictory desires of the electorate, to translate those competing interests into an agenda and then to work with the City Council to enact that agenda.

Political tasks. Policy decisions.

And in a representative democracy, we elect people to make discretionary policy decisions. To give that job to a hired hand is not just anti-democratic. It is the antithesis of representative democracy.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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