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Let’s restructure and pay the City Council

Thursday, March 6, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CST; updated 10:45 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Validation at last! Larry Schuster’s Feb. 23 “Soap Box” column in the Columbia Business Times called for something I have talked and argued for since moving to Columbia five years ago — professional executive and legislative branches of government properly compensated for their time and efforts running the city of Columbia. There are other suggestions made by Schuster and the Visioning exercise, which I disagree with or believe should go further, but we have a common starting point.

An all-volunteer government is great for a small town, but not for the city Columbia wishes to become. Like it or not, our permanent residents will grow to over 100,000 shortly, and we need a government that reflects the increased complexity of big-city management.

There is a minority who believe that government officials do nothing, pray off the taxpayers and are otherwise corrupt; why else would they be in politics? If you believe that the responsibilities of a City Council member is anything less than full time, you are completely out of touch with the nature of running government, listening to Rush and Ann just too much, reading too many extremist Libertarian pamphlets and use your own name to define “anarchy.”

Due to work constraints and obligations to students, I could not make the Visioning process meetings, especially the Transportation and Government committees. Not that my voice would have provided more insight, but getting involved is much more productive than simply complaining.

If I had attended, I would have put forth a not-so-radical idea — the complete rewrite of the city charter including the revamping of the council, keeping the current six district representatives and adding three at-large council members, all full time and all with support staff. The mayor would no longer be a member of the council (currently the at-large member and the figure and talking head for Columbia) but would sit as the head of the executive branch of the city government. No more “City Manager” who is not directly responsible to the citizens. (I like Bill Watkins, not the political appointment he holds.)

Schuster’s belief that a $1,000 a month is “indicative of the work and effort we expect from our council members” shows the low regard and expectations we have from our city officials. Let’s get serious; this is a bigger and more complex job than having a title and neglecting the commoner.

I would not suggest, as Schuster did, an annual salary of $12,000 to $18,000, but $100,000 for the mayor and $75,000 for council members. Sounds outrageous? Considering that the current city manager is being paid well into the six-figure income puts the new pay scale in perspective.

There are also good business reasons to establish a professional executive branch of the city government. By establishing a proper and fair remuneration package there is increased perceived responsibility to the citizens of Columbia by the council members. In addition, a larger pool of highly qualified individuals would seek office. Not that our current members are political Neanderthals, but their authority is lessened because they are “only volunteers.” On the contrary, the council members do a great job, but would do better if they were not tied to outside jobs to make ends meet.

As with transportation, resources and workforce availability, corporate America wants to know that a city government is responsible to its citizens including, contrary to some naysayers, the corporate interests of Columbia. A professional city government will be able to respond to the needs of the citizens of Columbia faster by being able to negotiate with businesses who are seeking new locations to establish their businesses and with those seeking to leave.

Larry was right when he stated that running a city government is not attuned to being “civic club members.” The council is responsible for the life and death of Columbia, a 24/7/365 proposition. Let’s compensate our officials properly and provide the tools they need to make Columbia a great city.

David Rosman is a business and political communications consultant, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. He welcomes your comments at ProfDave1011@netscape.net.

 


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Comments

Betty Hamilton March 6, 2008 | 3:53 p.m.

It would be nice to pay the City Council, but then we do not need a City Manager. And where would this money come from, raise Real estate taxes, personal property tax, sale tax, I really do not think the voter would go for this. When the City is have problems with the present budget.

(Report Comment)
Traci Wilson-Kleekamp March 6, 2008 | 7:07 p.m.

Whoa... there's no evidence that a paid city council is any more effective than an unpaid council. There are plenty of white papers abound that try to grapple with that question. That said -- IMHO, before we start talking about paying people money -- certainly we should be reviewing the City Charter to replace the "horse & buggy" ordinances that do not meet the demands of the growth the City has made in the last 10 years. For one, I think we need a Planning and Zoning Commission that sets policy and this is not just advisory. We need a robust public conversation about whether the existing power structure provides the accountability the community needs? Sure. Some council members may say -- we can't turn over some of OUR power but the ongoing land-use debates indicate that some serious, tough (and perhaps expensive) decisions about public policy need to be made. For example -- the City of Columbia lacks policy about cleaning up a dirt pile that can sits years on end? How dinosauric! If the City can't require a dirt pile to be removed after construction is completed or delayed and/or allows land to be disturbed with no plan or public discussion of "what is its highest and best use" in 2008 -- then government is failing to work in some very basic ways.

Ok...so I think a very PUBLIC discussion about a stipend and staff for council members is a worthwhile conversation. But if we aren't talking about whether or not the Charter and the structure of our local government provides accountability to the local community -- then we sure shouldn't start talking about spending money the City Manager already says they don't have.

(Report Comment)
Brian Ash March 7, 2008 | 12:12 p.m.

I don't think this is a good idea at all. This would be some type of hybrid between the County Commissioners and City Council.

The whole reason to have a City Manager and a paid professional City staff that controls that day to day operations who are not elected is to avoid having the rules bent based on your political connections. As maddening as City Staff can occasionally be with their strict adherence to ordinances (even if the reasons behind those ordinances sometimes don't make sense) it's because they bend over backwards to make sure everyone follows the same set of rules.

Council should be the policy makers who determine what those rules are, but things have gotten out of whack lately with Council micro-managing (with good intentions) specifics that should be covered in our ordinances.

The original plan was to let the engineers who have the proper degrees and are paid to be the experts design the streets and sewers and just leave the volunteer Council to have the final say on projects and be accountable to the voters.

Everything has pluses and minuses. If we try to create rigid ordinances that cover every possible scenario we can end up with unintended consequences that create as many problems as they solve. Try to leave too much discretion up to Council and you have marathon Council Meetings and Agendas.

My fear with Tracy's suggestion to give P&Z final say rather than only recommendation power to Council is that they are appointed rather than elected. Like or hate Council Members, they get voted on every three years.

But making Council work their full-time job and paying them accordingly is more like County, State and Federal Government. For all our warts with the City's current system, I think it is the most responsive and works better than any other branch of government.

If we want to tweak things, okay, there's always room for improvement, but I'm leery of massive overhauls and would prefer baby steps.

(Report Comment)
Traci Wilson-Kleekamp March 10, 2008 | 12:33 a.m.

I didn't mean to imply that P&Z should have final say -- I think they should be the lead in setting land use policy -- that yes.. can be debated or approved by the council.

Otherwise -- without some policy-setting focus; the council ends up micro-managing situations that should already be resolved before they reach the council (like CrossCreek).

Now -- if good policy and procedures were in place; there's a good chance that conflicts like CrossCreek could be ameliorated.

I am not against paying council members; I just think that it is a good time to ask if the structure of government (weak council; strong city-manager) is getting us the kind of accountability that we want.

I think this might be open to debate; and of course; government only moves in baby steps.

traci

(Report Comment)

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