Proposed charter amendment would include City Council in hiring and firing decisions

Tuesday, January 19, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 5:47 p.m. CST, Wednesday, January 20, 2010

COLUMBIA — The U.S. Senate holds hearings to confirm the nominations of federal department heads and Supreme Court justices. Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala thinks the Columbia City Council should have the same opportunity with city department heads.

The City Council will consider a proposal Tuesday night that would put a sixth city charter amendment on the April 6 ballot. Skala's proposed amendment would require something akin to a confirmation hearing, in which the hiring or firing of department heads would require the City Council's consent.

Skala said the council's consent would give voters stronger representation in Columbia city government.

"I don't think city staff should be beholden to City Council or the city manager," Skala said. "They should be beholden to the citizens."

The current charter gives the hiring and firing of department heads to the city manager, who in turn is hired by the citizen-elected City Council.

Skala said council members sometimes are asked for their input in the hiring process, but their input is not required.

"Department heads should be working to please the voter," Skala said. "Citizens should be the top of the hierarchy."

First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz said he supports the proposed amendment. He said that without a confirmation process in place, the council's only recourse  amounts to a "nuclear option" in which the council could fire a city manager it thought had made poor personnel decisions.

"We're talking about tens of millions of dollars tied up in those departments," Sturtz said. "We feel that the voters should have a tiny bit of ability to weigh in on that process."

Sturtz added that the amendment would not change the city's hiring process across the board.

"This would only be for department heads. It's not like this is going to come up every week," he said.

The city's Web site lists 20 individual city departments, but the city is seeking a sustainability manager, which would bring the count to 21 departments.

Fourth Ward Councilman and mayoral candidate Jerry Wade opposes the amendment.

"First of all, the council does have substantial opportunity to convey their thoughts to the city manager," Wade said. "The city manager is accountable to the City Council."

The city manager is one of only three city positions appointed by the City Council. Municipal judges and city clerks are the other two.

Wade said he was uncomfortable with the proposed amendment because it would give the city manager less autonomy and force potential hires and sitting department heads to consider the politics and loyalties of the City Council.

"It basically begins to add political decisions to top management hires," Wade said.

Skala said he was surprised the proposal is coming to a vote.

"When I proposed this I had no intention of putting it on the April ballot," he said, adding that he only "wanted to start public discussion on what I thought would be a controversial issue."

The City Council will vote Tuesday evening on whether to add the amendment to a list of five that already will appear on the April ballot.

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Mike Martin January 19, 2010 | 8:22 a.m.

To remind folks why Mr. Skala may feel the need to introduce such legislation, last year alone saw city manager Bill Watkins:

1) Attend and engage in a meeting where removal of certain "undesirable, activist" council members -- Wade, Hoppe, Skala, and Sturtz -- was on the agenda and openly discussed (so called "Country Club Gate").

2) Single-handedly champion and place on the council's agenda without their knowledge or consent not one, but TWO bills to use eminent domain to take private land from the Raders, who own Bengals Bar and Grill and the owners of Addison's, okaying the use of $250,000 in city CVB funds to make the transaction happen.

3) Ignore a knowledgeable whistle blower, 35-year city employee Bill Weitkemper, who has uncovered a systematic under-billing of large sewer users that is costing the city $1.6 million annually.

4) Lose a Water and Light director -- Kraig Kahler -- he had just recently hired over domestic abuse problems that escalated into multiple homicides.

5) Openly threaten to remove a city council member -- Karl Skala -- from the council for essentially "asking too many questions" about the hiring of new police chief Ken Burton and new water and light director Kraig Kahler.

6) Meet repeatedly with Tribune publisher Hank "The Butterfly" Waters to privately plan such downtown redevelopment options as the new parking garage; the use of eminent domain; the reconstitution of a Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority, notorious in decades past for taking land from black folks; and how to spread tax incentives like TIFs to major players.

7) Lose his administrative assistant, Deirdre Hoelzeman, to an arrest over some shenanigans involving minors.

Mr. Watkins is not King Watkins, we the public are not royal subjects, and city council members are not serfs -- though you wouldn't know it these days.

(Report Comment)
Tim Dance January 19, 2010 | 9:23 a.m.

Watch, all the people that had made money hand over fist essentially making back room deals with the city manager will hate this amendment. Just wait and see who opposes it. Some people will even say that it is a power grab from Skala, which is laughable. Watkins is an unelected employee of the city and we the people should have more of a say through the council. Again wait to see who opposes YOU having more of a say in city politics. It will those who have or want the citizens of Columbia to subsidize their developments or have the city put up surveillance cameras. When Skala was elected he wanted to change city politics, apparently he is a man of his word. Thank goodness he's on the council.

(Report Comment)
ann Peters January 19, 2010 | 9:31 a.m.

Thanks Karl for keeping the interest of the tax payer and citizens first and foremost, change is needed in the Governance of Columbia, GO Karl.
I hope the Missourian will continue to cover this story.

(Report Comment)
Dan Goldstein January 19, 2010 | 11:51 a.m.

For reference, the idea of increasing council input on the recruitment,hiring and performance of department heads is in the Image Columbia's Future: City of Columbia Vision and Action Plan, Final Report.

I sent the following letter to the mayor and council on this subject:
Dear Mayor and Members of Council,
In reference to the following upcoming agenda item:
B7-10 Calling a special election to consider an amendment to the Home Rule Charter of the City of Columbia to provide that the city manager shall appoint and remove department heads only with the advice and consent of the city council.
Please be aware of the following relevant items from the Image Columbia's Future: City of Columbia Vision and Action Plan, Final Report.
Citizens Topic Group: Governance and Decision Making

Strategy 8: Increase the accountability of the City administration to the City Council and the public
Action Plan:Other recommended action steps: (2 relevant actions to this item D.G.)
-- "Encourage the council to make itself a part of the search committee to work with the City Manager in recruiting and hiring all Department Heads"
-- "Encourage City Manager to solicit input from City Council members on the performance of all Department Heads as part of the City Manager’s annual performance evaluation of all Department Heads"

(Page 4.J.4 (101) , Image Columbia's Future: City of Columbia Vision and Action Plan, Final Report )
As always please feel free to contact me if more information is needed.

Dan Goldstein

(Current Chair of the Columbia Visioning Commission.)

(Report Comment)
Will Barret January 19, 2010 | 1:01 p.m.

yes, please bring back a patronage system...please introduce more politics into hiring and firing decisions...really it will make city hall more beholden to the citizens - lol.

(Report Comment)
Tim Dance January 19, 2010 | 1:46 p.m.


You have got to be kidding, You haven't lived here very long. If you have, then you are likely profiting directly or indirectly with the back room good old boy deals of the past. It sounds like the ignorant and/or monied interests in this town are into scare tactics and hyperbole. This is not about patronage, it is about curbing the powers of an UNELECTED official. Checks and balances, what our system is founded upon. Folks, people like Will want you to believe that a system of patronage doesn't exist now and that voting for this charter amendment will create one. There is already a system of patronage in place and they will be damned if the citizens of Columbia is going to muck up their gravy train. They will attack Skala, lie, and spend a ton of money behind some AstroTurf organization to get you to vote it down. Council consent means people's consent.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking January 19, 2010 | 2:03 p.m.

Tim Dance wrote:

"it is about curbing the powers of an UNELECTED official"

I don't see where this legislation will do very much in that area. Of all the alleged abuses of power that the Heartbeat enumerated above, only Kahler's hiring would have been in any way affected by having this advise and consent system in place. How often does the city hire a new department head? Once every couple years, on the average?

Watkins serves at the pleasure of the council. If council is concerned that he is getting too powerful, they can do something about that, like fire him. Council members can only lose their seats for specific actions, like trying to influence hiring and firing decisions (and I'm sure one can see why that law exists). While I think the "advise and consent" legislation deserves a try, it does not address other areas of concern.

If the city has outgrown the city manager form of government, let's talk about alternatives.


(Report Comment)
Mike Martin January 19, 2010 | 3:03 p.m.

I'm with Tim.

This legislation is indeed about "curbing the powers of an UNELECTED official" -- in this case, an unelected official who has accrued too much power because his office is almost never challenged. As such, it has become a one-stop lobbying shop for wealthy, powerful patrons.

Yes, patrons -- like fully 3/4 of the members of the State Historical Society Board. Like Justice Stephen Limbaugh.
Like mega-developer Jeff Smith and my all-time favorite, Hank "The Plagiarizing Butterfly" Waters.

What strikes me about Hank's activities, for instance, is that he is NOT contacting the mayor or his councilman. He goes straight to Bill Watkins, because he knows that's where the power really resides.

Regarding Mark Foecking's comments,
while the city may not hire new department heads all that often, it does invest in them a great deal of power that has a long-ranging impact on the city.

But more importantly, Skala's legislation has farther reaching implications than merely a hiring/firing role, and represents only one step in a more balanced power-sharing arrangement.

On the issue of firing the city manager, yes, the council can fire him if it has four votes.

But as councilman Paul Sturtz rightly pointed out, firing the city manager is a "nuclear" option, a last resort that shouldn't be necessary -- and shouldn't represent an ever-present threat, to both Mr. Watkins and the community.

Firing him would be an unprecedented -- and divisive -- move, and I can certainly see why the council doesn't want to do that every time it wants to correct individual problems or make individual changes in the way city government functions.

I've been as critical as anyone about the manager's shenanigans. But I too do not advocate his dismissal.

If the relationship between the city manager and the council is indeed one of "if you don't like what I'm doing, then fire me," that's dysfunctional and needs changing.

Professional peers don't treat each other with such subterranean insinuations.

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock January 19, 2010 | 4:16 p.m.

Heatbeat "in this case, an unelected official who has accrued too much power because his office is almost never challenged."

So instead of the council actually challenging him they want to hinder his job and pick his department heads?

Look I don't agree with some things the city manager does. I think he should have a calender that is open for all to see. However Columbia is one of the few cities that has not had to do away with a lot of our city services. This must mean that he is doing something right.

We don't want another type of federal system. Look at the political circus it has become. I understand Karl probably doesn't like the city manager. So instead of voting not to renew his contract because he isn't getting the response that he wants he thinks by hiring/firing people they may be more inclined to listen to him. This isn't about a advise and consent it is about hiring your friends or like minded people so you can get things you want. Karl and Paul do not interact day to day with the department heads. None of us do. If the counsel gets involved in the firing aspect then due to the sunshine law every department head will have their dirty laundry aired in order to be hired/dismissed from the office. Not a good way to recruit quality people. If the counsel doesn't agree with that person they can drag up stuff and use it as a political football to "show" the people they are involved in the running of the city. Or if the department head isn't performing up to his role it really won't matter because his friends are elected and will help him keep his job. Wouldn't be surprised if this is the same system Chicago and California has. Do we really want to be like them? They are broke.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking January 19, 2010 | 4:37 p.m.

Columbia Heartbeat wrote:

"Firing him would be an unprecedented -- and divisive -- move, and I can certainly see why the council doesn't want to do that every time it wants to correct individual problems or make individual changes in the way city government functions."

I agree. But as any employee knows, the boss gets to tell you what's appropriate and what's not because of that threat, however veiled. If council is unhappy with the actions of the manager, they have some say in that, whether they actually vote to fire him or not.

As I say, I don't oppose this latest legislation. Let's see how it goes, and if it seems council is playing politics with department hires, then citizens can complain and even organize recall votes. But it's also somewhat of a slippery slope - I can see more legislation of this sort making it difficult for the manager to do his job, with the functioning of city departments suffering.

If we're going to start down that slope, perhaps it's time to question whether we need a city manager in the first place. Maybe we need full time, professional (paid) council people and a strong mayor that could take over the functions of the city manager, while being directly accountable to constituents.


(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro January 19, 2010 | 4:47 p.m.

That would mean that public opinion, expressed by voting citizens, would actually carry some weight.
Sounds like a good democracy to me.
(Elimination of the city manager, assistants and staff would free up at least $300,000 in payroll per my guesstimate.)
Better to pay voted-in termed positions then a lifelong staffer who builds and wields so much power.)
If this approach didn't work, we could always go back to the council-manager model. IMHO, it's worth a try.

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock January 19, 2010 | 4:48 p.m.

With full time council members that run the city do you think the people will elect people who are capable? Sorry but people sometime vote for the last name they see on the way into the voting booth or the person with the most signs. It is a sad reality.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin January 19, 2010 | 5:18 p.m.

"I understand Karl probably doesn't like the city manager. So instead of voting not to renew his contract because he isn't getting the response that he wants he thinks by hiring/firing people they may be more inclined to listen to him. This isn't about a advise and consent it is about hiring your friends or like minded people so you can get things you want."


You're jumping to way too many conclusions here that aren't fair to Karl or the process. How do you know Karl "thinks by hiring/firing people they may be more inclined to listen to him?"

I've never heard him articulate any such thing!

And this comment would lead me to believe you really don't understand what advise and consent means:

"This isn't about a advise and consent it is about hiring your friends or like minded people so you can get things you want."

For one thing, you're assuming that NONE of these ill-intentions ever apply to the city manager (why, he would NEVER hire his friends nosirree), but will apply to city council members, which makes no sense; and you're making an "advise and consent" process that would follow on the heels of a national search; public comment; lots of interviews; and a majority vote into some kind of way for Karl Skala to hire his friends at City Hall!

Your conclusions are REEAAAALLL stretches, IMHO.

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock January 19, 2010 | 6:14 p.m.

Well it is your opinion and you are in entitled to it. LOL But just because you have never heard Karl articulate such a thing doesn't mean it isn't true. In fact he could even say that isn't his intent but what a person says and thinks are two totally different things. I do think there is something to be said about "biting the hand that feeds you." That saying has been around for awhile. If the council hired people don't respond to council members in such a manner that suits them then they could get fired. Look this stuff happens on the federal level why would Columbia think that we would not digress in such a way? I am certainly not saying the city manager wouldn't hire a friend of his. However, even if he did hire a friend of his the city manager still has his head on the chopping block if it doesn't work out. This new way would keep his head on the block and he doesn't get to pick his teammates. I don't have too much of a problem with the "advise" part. Although I really don't think some of the member knows in depth what each department head does. I DO have a problem with the consent. All the council has to do is keep saying NO to whoever the city manger brings forth until their person gets hired.

(Report Comment)
Tim Dance January 19, 2010 | 7:33 p.m.

<<<All the council has to do is keep saying NO to whoever the city manger brings forth until their person gets hired.<<<

Wow, this guy was 12 votes away from being on the council????

Why do conservatives/libertarians feel threatened by the people having more of a say. Like Martin stated above, the city manager has become a one stop lobbying shop. The good old boys of this town don't go their council person first, they see Watkins. Those without power and money have to go the route of the council. This way WE have a say in our city government. If that sounds to big government for you, too bad. Again, it took a councilperson like Skala, who has the guts to stand up for the PEOPLE of Columbia.

(Report Comment)
Larry Bossaller January 19, 2010 | 9:07 p.m.

I think Mr. Wade has a good point regarding politics. It works both ways, but Mr. Wade only see's the potential with the City Council. What Mr. Wade misses is the reality that already exist with the City Manager and his buddies. Columbia Heartbeat clearly demostrates the reality. I don't think Mr. Wade would make a good Mayor because of his narrow perspective. With the existing situation with the City Manager's current politics and the potential City Council politics, at least we would have a "balance" with the new policy. At the present time, we don't have a voice until the hiring selection process is over.

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock January 20, 2010 | 6:23 p.m.

Tim says "Wow, this guy was 12 votes away from being on the council????"

Tell me what in not factual about my statement? Is it not true that is all they would have to do?

(Report Comment)

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