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GUEST COMMENTARY: Policy formation enhances government

Friday, March 26, 2010 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 10:40 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The current trouble with the governance of Columbia and American cities has its roots in the middle of the 19th century. Cities began to grow during the Industrial Revolution, putting pressure on housing, public health and sanitation, transportation, electrical and other systems. Mayors were elected as chief executives, prone to giving public jobs to political supporters who, in turn, tended to be ignorant of the technical aspects of their jobs. The council/manager form of government, now followed by Columbia, was the response to these conditions. It stripped the mayor of his administrative duties and placed them with a professional manager. Policy-making was left with the council. The current trouble in Columbia is that the council makes policy on an ad hoc basis.

No record of policies as such is maintained by the city. There is not a catalog of actions taken and organized by subject matter. To know how similar matters were decided by the council, one would have to depend on the memories of those involved. There is no organized paper trail. The claim is made that the city is run by ordinance and further that the book of city ordinances is a book of policies, available for inspection by interested parties. But an ordinance is a pale substitute for policy. An ordinance, such as a zoning ordinance, is typically a set of regulations. It specifies what is a permissible or an impermissible land use in the city. It does not answer the question "Why?" A policy in the present context performs this function. It provides the rationale or the reasons for the regulation. A policy is different from a regulation. A policy is any governing principle, plan or course of action. A policy should contain a statement of the goals, intentions, or purposes for actions and include, where relevant, a statement of principles and standards which should be used in carrying out the policy. The benefits of making policy can be enormous. Here are a few:

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  • It allows the coordination of actions by public agencies. In Columbia there is a multiplicity of agencies impacting development: the city, the county, the school district, the Columbia Area Transportation Study Organization (CATSO), sewer and water districts among others. The lack of overall policy in a multi-agency environment forces each agency to make independent decisions that sometimes require millions of dollars of project investment outside the project. An obvious example is the decision to build a new high school in the rural part of the county which will immediately create new sewer, water, electric and fiber optic needs, as well as a need for new arterial roads.
  • It forecasts the probable public reaction to private proposals. Without public policy, private enterprise must guess at the public reaction to many of its private proposals. Public policy can provide the "whys" and "wherefores" to public thinking on the matter, enabling developers to shorten the time, expense and controversy involved in development.
  • It helps to insure that decision-making is based on the public interest. Without the rationale provided by policy, each public decision taken stands on its own without reference to the city as a whole. Under such circumstances decisions tend to be arbitrary and capricious, the antithesis of the public interest.

The subject matter of policy should determine how the city manager organizes his staff to fulfill the city’s policy needs. The staff that should be assembled for a land use policy, for example, might consist of selected members of the city and county planning, recreation and public works staffs, a representative of the school district, the Columbia Area Transportation Study Organization and others, whereas the group to be assembled for the economy or law enforcement should consist of a different group of individuals.

Because circumstances change, policy should be continuously monitored and updated, at the bidding of the City Council. It is understood key staff have a dual role: one of performing their job responsibilities as prescribed by the city manager and the other of advising City Council in the development of public policy. Using existing staff reflects my conviction that only by involving staff in the “why” of things are we able to use their full potential in helping us maintain the city as an outstanding place to live.

Sid Sullivan is a candidate for mayor.

 


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Comments

John Clark March 27, 2010 | 10:24 a.m.

An excellent and timely explication of the meaning and place of "making policy" in our council-manager form of government. We need this man as our Mayor of the City of Columbia.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro March 28, 2010 | 5:21 p.m.

("Because circumstances change, policy should be continuously monitored and updated, at the bidding of the City Council. It is understood key staff have a dual role: one of performing their job responsibilities as prescribed by the city manager and the other of advising City Council in the development of public policy.")

("...at the bidding of the City Council.")
What a concept!

(Report Comment)

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