Life after Beck

Speculation over the future of Columbia’s city management is increasing as Ray Beck’s tenure nears 20 years.
Sunday, October 3, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:43 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

The work of Columbia City Manager Ray Beck and his staff reaches into your house with every flush of the toilet, every turn of the spigot.

He has a hand in where and how city streets are built.

He directs the development of subdivisions and commercial districts and has been a guiding force in where — and how — to extend the infrastructure that defines city growth.

Whether you live in an older part of town or in one of the newly developed swaths that was forest just 10 or 20 years ago, your neighborhood might look quite different if someone other than Beck had occupied the city’s top administrative post for the past two decades.

He’s been guiding growth in Columbia for even longer if you include his previous job as director of the Department of Public Works.

At 71, Beck is nearly in a league of his own. According to a 2002 survey by the International City/County Management Association, in a sample of 2,730 mangers, only 0.5 percent were older than 70.

Beck hasn’t announced plans to retire, but the private conversations about Columbia’s next city manager have already gone public. Former mayoral candidate John Clark, who lost in the April election to incumbent Darwin Hindman, has been a harsh critic of Beck as city manager. He joined the race because he wanted to lead the search for Columbia’s next city manager, which he thinks will be the most important decision the council makes in the coming years.

Clark said Beck is “untrained and backward in many ways.” Hindman praised the city manager’s years of service.

When Beck does step down, the City Council will have a monumental decision to make on behalf of the city’s nearly 90,000 residents. It’s a decision that stands to affect the entire spectrum of city government, from fire and police protection to taxes — plus one of the hottest issues of the past decade or longer: how and where Columbia should grow.

After Ray Beck, what’s next?

In Beck’s footsteps

What will Columbia need in its next city manager? An urban planner? A native Columbian? Experience in a large, high-growth community? A more open managerial style? An entirely different system of governance?

Often, ideas about what Columbia needs stems from perspectives on what Columbia has. Some people worry that another manager with a public-works background is likely to be “automobile transportation-oriented, very road-oriented,” as Hindman said of Beck in the April mayoral debate.

Some residents think this approach to city growth is outdated.

“We really need a city manager who’s kept up with the planning trends of the last 20 years,” said Paul Sturtz, who questioned Beck’s handling of growth in the April mayoral debate. “We’re stuck in 1962: Pave everything from here to the river.”

That’s one point of view. Dan Simon has another.

Simon, an attorney who has represented businessmen including Elvin Sapp — the owner of the Philips farm, which is about to become one of the biggest developments in the city’s history — said he hopes Beck’s successor doesn’t stray too far from his footsteps. In Simon’s mind, someone with a public-works background like Beck’s would make a strong candidate.

Simon credits Beck with engineering Columbia’s commercial growth and working to develop its trails and other recreational assets such as the Activity and Recreation Center.

“If he could have done something different,” Simon said, “I wish he could have delegated more and done more personally to find a successor.”

Managing growth

Call it growth, call it development, call it urban sprawl.

Columbia’s expanding population and boundaries continue to be a lightning rod for public debate. The next city manager will take the reins of a growing city that has Beck’s imprint on nearly every corner.

Managing growth is just one part of running a city, but Beck understands it’s the part that often draws the most attention. No one talks about trash pickup, so long as it’s getting done.

“Land-use planning involves more citizen involvement than a solid-waste program,” Beck said. Whether the next manager stays the course set by Beck or changes direction, that person will be judged by how he or she influences Columbia’s growth. There’ll be a laundry list of expectations from interest groups — not all of them compatible.

“Any city manager that comes here has to understand that this is a community that is very active and that will get involved in anything,” former Mayor Clyde Wilson said. That is especially true for planning issues and developments such as the Philips tract.

Chip Cooper of PedNet, a group that advocates city sidewalks and trail systems, said that no matter who is city manager, someone will disagree with his or her decisions. The key is compromise.

“I think that the city manager of Columbia always has to be cognizant that Columbia’s economic and social success is derived from its outstanding quality of life and quality of place, and that the formula of success for Columbia has been to balance the interests of the grays and the interest of the greens,” Cooper said.

Linda Rootes is a city employee. Most of her interaction with the city manager’s office, however, has come from her involvement with the North Central Neighborhood Association. She is concerned about city planning, as it applies to both the development of new neighborhoods and the revitalization of existing ones.

Rootes said she wants a progressive city manager.

“I believe the future really belongs to urban planners,” she said.

Although an urban planner might give Columbia a focus on long-range land-use planning that some think is lacking, there is an underlying difference of ideas as to whether a city manager should bring a singular expertise to the job.

“Anybody who wants a city manager with a certain kind of background is making a huge mistake,” said John Nalbandian, chairman of the public-administration program at the University of Kansas and former two-term mayor of Lawrence, Kan.

Nalbandian said he thinks it is more important to have a manager who is adept at working with multiple points of view than an expert specializing in a specific challenge facing the city, such as growth or fiscal issues.

Over the past 20 years, Nalbandian said, the role of the city manager has shifted to include a closer working relationship with city councils and increased attention to community involvement. He said the history of city managers with backgrounds in engineering — as Beck has — was related to a period of city building. Because of the need to work closer with the council and community interests, he said, most city managers now have degrees in public administration.

Regarding the future of Columbia’s growth, Beck and some of his environmentally minded critics have used Boulder, Colo., as an example, but on opposite sides of the spectrum.

Boulder has developed a reputation for progressive land-use planning, which is why some in Columbia cite the Colorado city as a positive example. Sturtz and other critics think Columbia’s natural resources are being squeezed to provide a bigger base for sales-tax revenues.

On the other hand, Beck has stressed the importance of sales-tax revenue in avoiding fiscal shortages. Shortfalls in sales tax have forced Boulder to trim its city budget.

For years, Boulder has used tax money to buy land around the city to keep as green space. This has helped the city preserve its environment, Boulder City Manager Frank Bruno said. It has also been a factor in the city’s high cost of living, he said.

Bruno was hired as city manager a year and a half ago and has developed an economic vitality plan with local business leaders. He’s tried to balance the green policies for which Boulder is known with commercial growth and sales-tax revenue.

“Finding that balance is a tough one, day in and day out,” Bruno said.

The flow of information

Columbia residents have a reputation for being involved in local government. They often want more information and a greater role in decision-making, especially when it involves planning. Today’s city manager deals increasingly with the residents via neighborhood associations and advisory boards.

“The issue of planning is paramount, as is the issue of the flow of information,” said Karl Skala, who has served for more than five years on the Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission. “I’d like to see the city departments streamlined and have easier access to the information about planning and other issues.”

In May, Roy Dudark resigned as city planning director. Although Dudark cited personal reasons for his resignation, Jeff Barrow — a member of the city Planning and Zoning Commission and vice president of the Greenbelt Coalition of Mid-Missouri — said friction with the city manager’s office was a factor.

Barrow said Dudark was “a consummate professional at the height of his career” and that his “wings have been clipped.”

“People should feel like they’re able to express their professional point of view if they’re in that level of position,” Dudark said in a recent interview.

He said he was speaking generally of the working conditions he believes a city manager should create.

“I’m not getting into the current system,” he said.

Government overhaul

Barrow, who is also vice president of the Greenbelt Coalition of Mid-Missouri, said he would like the discussion after Beck’s eventual retirement to go further than looking at job candidates. He said he believes the manager/council form of government is undemocratic, and he sees Beck’s departure as the ideal time to re-evaluate the way city government is structured.

Columbia replaced a strong mayoral system with the manager/council government by citywide vote in 1949. The goal was to insulate the daily affairs of the city from decisions based on electioneering.

Under the present system, the city manager serves under the direction of the city council. However, it is almost the only job the council controls. Only the city clerk, the municipal judge and appointed boards and commissions report directly to the council.

Article 12 of the city charter prohibits the council from asking the manager to appoint or fire any employee under the manager’s direction. The manager is responsible for all personnel decisions, though those responsibilities can be delegated to department heads.

“It’s just a system that’s ripe for misuse and abuse, simply because the city manager has all the power,” Barrow said. He calls Beck a “benign dictator” who, despite exercising a great deal of power, has always done so with the good of the city in mind.

Barrow also said he believes the current system of city government might not be suited for cities Columbia’s size.

In 1985, a citizens’ group expressed interest in changing the structure of local government. Before Beck, Columbia had three city managers in seven years, including one manager for little more than a year and a half. They were looking for a more consistent system. The group got as far as hiring a local attorney to research the legalities of changing the city charter.

When Beck accepted the job, the movement to modify the charter faded.

The ideal tenure

Another question raised in this year’s mayoral election was whether a city manager should remain in the position for as long as Beck has.

Before taking the job in 1985, Beck and the council deliberated on a contract that would protect the retirement benefits Beck accrued during his years in Public Works. Beck was worried that he might be pushed out of the more tumultuous city manager’s office before retirement age.

“I’m not going to crawl in and retire in the city manager’s office,” Beck told the Columbia Daily Tribune in 1985 while serving as interim city manager. A month later, Beck won the job on a permanent basis and has held it ever since.

There are two major ideas about how long a city manager should stay in the top spot in one city. Sixth Ward Councilman Brian Ash said Beck’s experience has been a calming influence for the council.

“He just has a wealth of knowledge,” Ash said.

How long should the next city manager plan on staying?

“We need to have people who come here to be a part of the community — someone who is in it for the long haul,” said Jo Sapp of the League of Women Voters.

Others, such as Clark, believe having a manager for so long creates an “organizational culture” that leads to the stifling of ideas.

During the mayoral race, Clark said that having a different city manager every five to seven years is essential to keeping with the times. A city manager, he said, should make their contribution and be ready to move on.

Staying in office as long as Beck has requires a manager to adapt to the changing demands of the city and the position, KU’s Nalbandian said. To survive so long in the office, he said, Beck “likely is a different manager today than he was 20 years ago. If a manager has been in place for quite a while, it’s because he’s been doing a good job.”

Bruno, the Boulder city manager, disagreed with Nalbandian’s position and said a manager can be most effective in a narrower time period. He said there is no “magic number” — the ideal tenure length varies based on the individual, the community and its challenges. The average city manager has held his or her job for about seven years.

Bruno said he doesn’t plan on managing Boulder until his retirement. He wants to manage the city while he feels he is most effective, and then move to another position, possibly teaching public affairs at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “It’s not infinite. It’s not a lifetime appointment,” Bruno said.

He was hired because of his financial background to address the financial problems facing the city, he said. His previous experience in local government is mostly in college cities, he said, and the Boulder position is his first as manager. Modern managers often specialize to handle problems specific to certain sizes of cities.

Almeta Crayton, who represents the First Ward on the City Council, said that, when the time comes, she hopes an outside manager search will bring a different approach to Columbia’s growth debate.

“We’d get some newer, fresh ideas of how to do that,” Crayton said. “We’ve been real conservative for a while.”

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