It was a small item on Monday’s City Council agenda, and council members promptly passed the buck to the mayor, who was absent.
I dredge up the seemingly insignificant question of where the city manager sits during council meetings because it seems to me – and, I’m pretty sure, to more than one council member – symptomatic of a bigger, more important issue that hasn’t gotten the public discussion it deserves so far in campaign season.
That issue is the proper relationship between the manager, who is hired to administer our city government, and the council, which we elect to set policies for the manager to administer.
The bigger issue was raised last year by Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala, first when he wanted to advise City Manager Bill Watkins on the hiring of a new police chief and again when he suggested that council members should have “advise and consent” authority in the hiring of all department heads. Karl got slapped around a bit by some colleagues and the commentariat and shut up, at least temporarily.
Then last month he raised the smaller issue. Ken Green, bibliophile, newspaper reader and all-around good citizen, chimed in. The Missourian report quoted him: “Why does our City Council give our manager a seat, and dead center to boot? The city manager works for the council, which in turn works for the citizens of Columbia.”
Ken accurately summarized the theory of the council-manager form of government. His question went to the reality of it. The reality is that the manager typically sets not only the agenda for council meetings but the agenda for city government itself. There’s nothing new about that. His critics, of whom I occasionally was one, complained of Ray Beck’s dominance. It’s true that Ray was an uncommonly effective and dedicated leader. These days, his successor is playing the same role, if less overtly.
How could it be otherwise? Knowledge is power, and the manager has a huge built-in knowledge advantage over his putative bosses. He and his staff draw up the budget, the blueprint for government action. He and his staff suggest how the council should decide most of the major questions. It is, after all, his staff.
Council members, while they do hear from constituents and while some of them do undertake individual fact-finding, know mostly what the manager tells them about most issues. They’re not even supposed to question the manager’s staff except through him. They have no independent staff and no budget to hire one. That’s why the idea of student interns appeals.
Mayoral candidates Jerry Wade and Sid Sullivan have both raised in their campaign literature this problem of dependence. When Karl brought it up, though, Jerry joined the decision to table. Maybe he thought the time wasn’t right.
As outgoing Mayor Darwin Hindman ponders the placement of Bill Watkins’ nameplate, he may find the Columbia School Board’s action instructive. After Ken Green questioned the centrality of the superintendent at board meetings, Chris Belcher was displaced from the middle of the table.
My impression is that activist School Board members, unhampered by a restrictive charter, also are getting more closely involved than their City Council counterparts.
Reasonable people will disagree about the proper relationship between elected officials and hired professionals. As a small “d” democrat, I’d put the question this way: Do we want to be governed by the leaders we choose or by the administrators they select?
However you answer that question, I suspect you agree that the candidates for City Council and School Board should explain their views before we vote in April.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.