TODAY'S QUESTION: Should Council members have more say in employment of department heads?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010 | 10:32 a.m. CST

On Tuesday, the Columbia City Council voted to leave off the April 6 ballot a proposed city charter amendment that would have required the council to approve the hiring or firing of department heads, decisions currently made solely by the city manager.

The amendment would have been similar to hearings the U.S. Senate holds to confirm the nominations of federal department heads and Supreme Court justices.

When Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala proposed the amendment, he said he had “no intention of putting it on the April ballot." On Tuesday, he actually moved to withdraw the amendment after hearing thoughts from a few people at the meeting. Skala again said he only wanted to spark discussion with his proposal.

Skala's proposal, though, had the backing of First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz. Sturtz argued that voters — who select council members — should have more representation in the process of appointing or dismissing department heads. He also said without the chance to confirm a decision, the council’s only way to make its voice heard would be to fire a city manager it thought had made poor decisions.

Fourth Ward Councilman and mayoral candidate Jerry Wade opposed the change because potential candidates for open positions and current department heads would be forced to weigh loyalties of council members.

"This will have the council mucking around where we don't need to be," he said.

City Manager Bill Watkins said he opposes council involvement because of the delicate nature of firing a department head. Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill also opposed the amendment, saying that, as a councilman, he doesn't have enough information to evaluate department heads.

Even though the amendment won't be on the April 6 ballot, should City Council members have more say in the hiring and firing of department heads?

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Eric Cox January 20, 2010 | 11:21 a.m.

This reminds me of Office Space.

" Peter Gibbons:..., I have eight different bosses right now.
Bob Porter: Eight?
Peter Gibbons: Eight, Bob. So that means when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That's my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that, and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro January 20, 2010 | 12:51 p.m.

@Eric Cox:
You have a point. However, how many "bosses" does a school teacher have? How many "bosses" does a nurse have? How many "bosses" does a grocery cashier have? How many "bosses" does an accountant have?
And, how many "bosses" does any elected politician have?
In fact, how many "bosses" does the President of the United States have?
(In addition to Michele, of course.)

(Report Comment)
Dan Goldstein January 20, 2010 | 2:19 p.m.

Should City Council members have more say in the hiring and firing of department heads?


Currently department heads are hired or fired based on loyalty to the City manager.
Sometimes this works, sometimes it does not. Advise and consent would provide a sense of checks and balances to the current system. The City manager would still interview and select a slate of candidates for a position. If the candidate the City Manager prefers is a reasonable choice for the job there would be no reason for them not to be approved by Council.

From the Article: "City Manager Bill Watkins said he opposes council involvement because of the delicate nature of firing a department head."

I see no possible reason why this is an argument against this proposal. All personnel matters are discussed in closed meetings under the Missouri sunshine laws. The only difference is that the city manager would have to discuss the "delicate nature" of the situation with council in a closed meeting. If there is a legitimate reason to fire someone then explain it to a closed council session. If by "delicate" the city manager means "political" then he will need to present this to our elected political officials and let them decide the validity of the issue.

We lost our last two water and light directors. Kahler was scary, unqualified and turned out to be a murderer. Nothing in this proposal would have kept him from being fired. Dan Dasho was qualified, worked hard to promote renewable energy and conservation and got fired for "delicate" reasons, that as far as I can tell had more to do with development politics than job performance. Dan Dasho's firing should have gone before a closed council session for approval, as should have Kahler's.

Also as was pointed out previously, the concern about a need for increased oversight, and possible solutions are part of the citizens visioning 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:

- 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

Dan Goldstein

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro January 20, 2010 | 3:26 p.m.

@Mr. Goldstein:
I like and respect your approach to the need and manner in which a more team management approach to city staff administration can and should take place.
I also believe that the city manager's office has given the citizens' Vision Commission a raw deal as indicated in part by the inclusion of a city hired consultant who apparently was an agent of Mr. Watkins and his powers that be.
Where is the inclusion? Where is the input? Where is the accountability? How are Columbia's citizenry being represented? Who's in charge? Where are the managers and leaders? Who's calling the shots and why? What's their agenda?

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock January 20, 2010 | 6:46 p.m.

Ray I think you raised a good question. "Whats their agenda?" What the council members SAY they want and what they mean are two different things. Karl may say he wants a citizens voice but what he "means" is that he wants his voice heard. Or his friends hired. Some have argued how is that any different then the city manager hiring his friends. Well the city mangers gets fired if his "friends" do a bad job. Of course this is speculation but one needs to always look at the flip side of things.

(Report Comment)

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