COLUMBIA — City Manager Bill Watkins sat quietly Tuesday night as the Columbia City Council debated whether he had too much power.
The council weighed — and eventually dropped — a proposal to add a city charter amendment to the April 6 ballot that would require council input when city department heads are hired and fired. Currently, only the city manager can hire or fire department heads and council input is not required.
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala introduced the amendment at the council meeting on Jan. 4. Skala has said he would like council members' opinions on these decisions to be taken into consideration to ensure more direct voter representation.
But after hearing input from a few people at Tuesday's meeting, Skala moved to withdraw the amendment. He said he had only intended to spark discussion, not bring the issue to a vote.
"We haven't had a discussion," Skala said. "The only discussion we've had was this last 10 minutes."
Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade said he didn't think the amendment was appropriate, regardless. "This will have the council mucking around where we don't need to be," he said.
Wade said city manager autonomy was appropriate within Columbia's form of government, in which the city manager handles most of the city's administrative duties. Wade said that if the council was serious about addressing the issue, it needed to ask whether Columbia should change its form of governance altogether.
"This is a different question than making one change," Wade said.
Watkins, who sits at the center of the council during meetings, didn't weigh in during the debate. But before Tuesday's meeting, he said he opposed council involvement in department head personnel matters, particularly when it comes to terminating positions.
"The firing is of particular concern to me," Watkins said. "What about a forced resignation? Is that a firing? Does that mean I have to make my case public? I think it makes a case a little touchy and difficult."
Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill expressed similar concerns Tuesday afternoon. He said he didn't feel he had enough information to evaluate the performance of department heads.
Thornhill pointed to the resignation of then-Water and Light Director Kraig Kahler as an instance when the city manager needed autonomy to act.
"As a councilperson, I think I saw Kahler three or four times," he said.
Kahler was charged late last year with the murder of his wife, two daughters and his wife's grandmother a few months after Watkins asked Kahler to resign. At the time, Watkins cited Kahler's "difficult family issues."
In the end, the proposed amendment was withdrawn after City Attorney Fred Boeckmann pointed out that Tuesday's meeting was the last in which an item could be added to the April ballot.
Skala said he would like to see further discussion of the issue in the presence of a full council. Mayor Darwin Hindman and Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser were absent.
The proposed amendment was withdrawn by a vote of 5-0.*