Balance of power in Columbia City Council polarizes candidates' ideas

Friday, April 2, 2010 | 6:11 p.m. CDT; updated 11:33 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 5, 2010

COLUMBIA — When Columbia adopted a council/manager form of government in 1949, the city charter gave almost all power to the elected Columbia City Council members and the elected mayor. The city manager’s responsibility is to enforce and carry out policy set by the council.

The ways that the council and city manager have been using their designated  powers has been a topic frequently discussed by voters and candidates alike during the campaign season.

For the most part, candidates have not pinpointed the council/manager form of government as the problem. Rather, the ways in which the city manager and council implement their powers has been the main cause for concern.

As the charter stands, the council is in charge of the following:

  • Appointing the city manager
  • Choosing the city clerk
  • Setting and passing ordinances
  • “Except as this charter provides otherwise, all powers of the city shall be vested in the council.”

The city manager:

  • Serves as executive and administrative officer to city employees
  • Appoints and removes employees of the city
  • Submits policy recommendations to the council
  • Advises council on finances of the city
  • Makes sure laws and ordinances are enforced

Candidates for mayor and ward seats on the council have said nearly unanimously that the c0uncil should make better use of its policy-setting role and avoid micromanagement, particularly on issues pertaining to land use and zoning.

But there also has been a fairly polarized discussion about the relationship between the council and City Manager Bill Watkins, particularly when it comes to hiring and firing department heads.

Here's a look at what candidates have to say about the issue. You can also see video statements from the candidates on this issue and 10 others by going to the Missourian's online voters guide.


Sid Sullivan: Sullivan said the council should exercise its power of inquiry and that it should focus its efforts more on policy. He also called for more open channels of communication.

"Right now the city council is micromanaging," Sullivan said. "The city manager should be more involved in the policy-making. Policy is the heavy lifting of the governance, but it’s something that we need to do as we approach a city of 100,000 rather than to try to micromanage every decision by the city manager.”

Jerry Wade: Wade does not believe the council should have any say in the hiring or firing of department heads.

“Our current form of government was designed to explicitly exclude political considerations in the hiring of city employees," he said. "The role of council is to hire and supervise the city manager and to set policy and goals for the city, and then to make sure it gets adequately carried out.”

Sal Nuccio: Nuccio declined to provide a statement on this issue to the Missourian.

Bob McDavid: McDavid said he prefers the phrase "lines of authority" over "balance of power."

“There are very clear lines of authority in city government. The city council and mayor work for the citizens. The citizens are the boss, and the city manager works for the city council. If I’m elected mayor, I think those distinctions will be very clear. It’s the function of the city council and the mayor to make policy, legislate and approve the budget. It’s the responsibility of city manager to, based on direction from council, to administrate the city.”

Paul Love: Love criticizes the council for failing to use the powers already invested in it by the charter.

“Currently, the way it is set up is city council proposes laws and enacts ordinances, and the city manager is supposed to execute them. The problem is that the only employee the council can directly impact is the city manager and that’s simply by discussing his job performance with him and giving him a choice: He either can follow the rules set out or he can find a new job. The problem isn’t that they don’t have enough input to the process. They’re not keeping track of what he’s doing.”

“I don’t think they need more power, I think they need to use the power they’ve already been given.”

Sean O'Day: O'Day said City Manager Bill Watkins is doing a fine job but he thinks the council should have more oversight. He supports council input on hiring and firing department heads.

“As it stands the city council is not properly able to govern and not properly able to represent citizens that elected them into office.”


Karl Skala: It was Skala who brought up the idea of allowing the council input on the city manager's hiring and firing of department heads. Under the current system, he said, department heads too often are hired or promoted on the basis of loyalty rather than competence and independence.

“Do I think that there’s an imbalance of power between the city manager and city council? Yes. I’m not suggesting the city manager do anything different. He can form these commissions and boards for research commissions. If he wants to, he can put a council member on it. All I’m suggesting is when he gets to the final cut, when he has a candidate or slate of candidates — maybe two or three — that he run it by the council, and the council has to say yes or no."

"I think this is a relatively minor change, and I think it’s a way to restore the proper balance and to allow elected officials direct access to some of these issues.”

Gary Kespohl: Kespohl said the city council should not insert itself into management of the city.

"Their job is to make policy based on reports and facts given to them by the staff. And that’s what they should do. They shouldn’t try to micromanage everything that’s going on in the city."


Tracy Greever-Rice: She said it's important that the council bring the community's voice to some executive decisions made by professional staff. Part of that, she said, is a process issue.

“There are some decisions that have been ... executive decisions that could probably use a broader perspective and input. It’s important to keep in mind what the council is and who it represents.”

Sarah Read: She said the city council should neither micromanage nor second-guess executive decisions.

"That’s why we have a professional manger. I do think city council should provide input in terms of setting clear goals, clear priorities and clear evaluation standards, and follow through. I think city council could do a much better job in each of those areas."

Rick Buford: Buford agrees the council should set policy and that the manager should implement it. He does believe, though, that the city should consider whether the council should have additional authority, specifically subpoena and investigative power. 

"I would be interested in taking a look and maybe adding those to our charter as it is."

Daryl Dudley: Dudley said council members don't have the expertise to decide who to hire or fire for department head positions.

“We hired a city manager to manage our city. City council’s job is to go before the city manager and the city and give them the points of view of their constituents. Who has the most power? Its pretty equal."

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Dale Jones April 2, 2010 | 9:35 p.m.

Now the City Manager has the authority to do what he wants in hiring or firing department heads. I don't think someone should have absolute authority. There should be a balance of power for situations. City Manager has allowed politics to influence his decisions by allowing department heads to break rules. The City Manager has his "buddies" that he allows to break laws and etc. I am going to ask a friend who knows of this sitation to gain access to the press to show what is going on with "little hitler". The City Manager hired someone who killed his family. He fired another department head who was too classy for the City Manager out-of-date style. The City Manager needs to go. We need change on the City Council with NEW PEOPLE!

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