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  • Last modified 233 days ago (Nov. 23, 2023)

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Being thankful
for Marion’s mess

As we settle in to determine what we’re thankful for, let’s be thankful for our opportunity to reshape Marion’s government to avoid problems of the recent past.

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and Marion can learn several important lessons from problems it has faced in recent months.

One is timing. Appointing a city clerk and a police chief before appointing a city administrator, who would have been in a better position than council member to thoroughly vet candidates for those positions, was a serious error.

The same problem can occur when hiring an administrator. Council members admitted last January — and Mayor-elect Mike Powers later agreed — that the city’s charter ordinances establishing specific responsibilities for the mayor and council members were significantly flawed and in need of thorough review.

Charter ordinances

State law provides two alternatives to the commissioner form of government that ruled Marion for almost all but the last 20 years. One model calls for an “executive” mayor, who has administrative powers over all city staff but generally does not vote with the council. The other calls for a “legislative” mayor, who is a voting chairman of the council but cannot, without approval from the rest of the council, give his own orders to city staff. The options embody separation of powers that has been a hallmark of U.S. democracy since the American revolution.

Marion, unique among state cities, chose an ill-advised hybrid of the two systems and did so without submitting the issue, as required by law, to voters for their approval. It is no coincidence that Marion began descending into endless bickering, involving multiple different people over many years, after that decision was made.

It stretches all credulity to think it was just a matter of personality conflicts that led to various people rallying for or against David Mayfield, Bill Holderman, Mary Olson, Doug Kjellin, Todd Heitschmidt, Roger Holter, Mark Skiles, Ruth Herbel, Brogan Jones, and others. Eliminating those personalities won’t eliminate bickering. What caused bickering was a fundamentally flawed system that made it unclear who had the authority or responsibility to do what.

Clarifying 20 years of confusion aggravated by piecemeal amendments that — intentionally or not — left out key points needs to be the first order of business, and it needs to be addressed by a special transition team composed of the current council and the one that will take office in January.

Issues to be addressed should include precisely who has authority to hire employees, hand out raises, approve budgeted and unbudgeted expenditures over certain amounts, and seek or nominate volunteers to serve on various commissions and boards.

Administrator

Exactly what the city needs in terms of an administrator will depend on how these questions are resolved. So, too, will whether to fill some other positions.

In many cities Marion’s size, city administrators serve dual functions, also working as city clerk, as economic development director, as director of public works, or as director of community enrichment.

Finding a candidate with expertise in one of these areas would be a first step toward clarifying reporting responsibilities for government employees and reducing needless government spending. Marion’s taxes already are so high they hinder development. Hiring one really good person who can assume more than one portfolio — just as the state’s lieutenant governor also as its secretary of commerce — could save money while eliminating the stereotypical image of half a dozen supervisors standing around watching a single employee work.

Residency

Marion also needs to rethink whether ranking officers of the city should be required to live within the city — paying the same taxes and getting the same level of service as those who pay their salaries. The argument, contrary to the experiences of other cities like Hillsboro, had been that Marion can’t attract the best and brightest if it requires employees to live in town.

That’s another belief that’s been proven false by recent experiences. We hardly got the best and brightest with a police chief and two of three recent city administrators living outside the city limits.

This should not be a rule that changes depending on who the person is. If you want to cash a paycheck playing a key role in operating the city of Marion, you should be willing to live within the city of Marion. If Marion is such an undesirable place that employees don’t want to live in it, we have bigger problems than finding qualified candidates for employment, and those need to be addressed before applying a Band-Aid of allowing non-residents to serve as top city employees.

Once we find an administrator and know how that person will fit in with the rest of the city’s staff, we can start filling — or not filling — various vacancies such as police chief and economic development director or the soon-to-be-vacant position of community enrichment director.

Efficiency

We also should charge the administrator with looking at each area of city operations and determining its most cost-effective level of staffing. Do we need five full-time police officers, or could we get by with four and, presumably, a lot fewer vehicles? Should we be assigning relatively highly paid electricians to help with trash collection? Now that we’ve outsourced statement mailing, how many utility clerks do we need? How big a budget should we set aside for municipal court, which now hears few cases? How many bucket trucks, dump trucks, and other costly pieces of equipment do we really need? Are these actual needs or just wants? Could some of the equipment be shared with other governmental units, as we now share a building and zoning inspector?

The absolute worst thing Marion could do would be to rush to get back to business as usual. In case you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere, business as usual hasn’t worked. Rather, it has made us an international laughingstock. Now is the time for change, and with both a new council and several staff vacancies, there never will be a better opportunity — provided we, as a community, embrace it.

Now is not the time to stick our heads in the sand and worry about the morale of city staff. There are many fine city workers. But, as a whole, the staff should have low morale. Collectively, it has failed to move Marion forward and, thanks to bad hires and bad practices, has led to a decline not an improvement for Marion taxpayers.

What we need are elected and appointed officials and rank-and-file city employees willing to recognize that what they’ve been doing didn’t work and it’s time for a fundamental shift that will make them once again be able to be justifiably proud of their contributions to making Marion the best place any of us have seen.

That, not throwing money, equipment, and power at people, is the way we improve not only employee morale but taxpayer and citizen morale, as well.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Nov. 23, 2023

 

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