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.