GUEST COMMENTARY: How to fix our city government

Wednesday, March 3, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 10:44 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

There is a failure in the governance of the city of Columbia. This failure has occurred in the most important function, namely the formulation of public policy, in the most important public institution in the city, namely the Columbia City Council. Columbia is organized under a council/manager form of government. Under this form the council is supposed to formulate public policy and hire a manager to carry it out. The city manager is performing his duties as best he can while the council ignores its most demanding and important role as originator and promulgator of goals and visions for the city. Broad, critical areas of city development are left virtually unattended while the council languishes in backwaters of minutia, devoting precious time to mind-numbing details of matters that should be settled as public policy and dealt with by the city manager.

The most rudimentary practices for establishing public policy are not in place. There is no systematic gathering of facts through a free exchange of information between city council and city staff without city manager approval. This acquiescence denies council the power of “inquiry” prescribed by our City Charter and available to every resident of the city. According to the City Clerk, the council does not categorize prior meeting minutes by subject nor does a policy book exist. So, public hearings on specific issues before the council are not informed by prior decisions. As a result the vital interests of 100,000 residents are put on hold while the council sets its semi-monthly ad-hoc policies.


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The lack of policy formation has a widespread, deleterious effect on the community, as follows:

  • Citizen participation in local government  is stymied by the failure of the council to help shape the issues for public debate
  • It diminishes the stature of the council by making it seem that an individual’s concerns are the equivalent of the city of 100,000
  • It has a far-ranging negative impact on the efficiency of government by dealing with policy matters on an ad-hoc basis
  • It hamstrings the work of the city manager by forcing him to return to the council for directions on matters that should be settled by the systematic formation of public policy

The initiation of policy formation might occur with the suggestion of any council member, but it is the special province of the mayor. He is the putative leader of the council and represents the city as a whole, whereas each council member represents a section of the city and may at times be constrained by constituents. As a candidate for mayor, I offer the following as a preliminary, but by no means all-inclusive, list of policy matters for consideration of the electorate and the council:

Policy Needs

1.    Economic development in which a determination is made as to what role the city should play in the location and development of industrial parks and in which the most effective means of improving the economy of the city are weighed and adopted.

2.    Land use policy in which written, long range requirements for the various categories of land are determined, and in which policies are adopted relative to the arrangements of those uses in viable neighborhoods.

3.    Street policy in which the need for arterial and collector streets is coordinated with long-range land use and community facilities plans, and in which a policy for the development of local streets is adopted.

4.    Community facilities policy in which the type and location of community facilities needs, including schools, recreation, fire protection, library, major sewer and water, electrical generation, solid waste facilities, etc. are identified and coordinated with relevant agencies and long-range land use and street plans.

5.    Law enforcement in which written policies with respect to curfew and to the use and deployment of public outdoor surveillance devices and TASERs are explicated and adopted.

6.    Governance in which a more systematic and explicit articulation is undertaken of the relationship of the mayor and council to the city manager and staff. Under the City Charter the power of “inquiry” is explicitly granted to city council. Under this umbrella, the governance policy should make particular reference to “whistle blowers” and “use of city staff versus outside consultants.”

7.    Emergency assistance to the poor to include specific policies for assistance with shelter, clothing and food.

Sid Sullivan is a candidate for mayor of Columbia.

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