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Important message might get lost because of tone

Marion City Administrator Doug Kjellin was very critical in a memo to Marion City Council members Nov. 29 after they voted to grant relief to utility billing policies twice at the Nov. 28 council meeting.

Kjellin said the decisions hurt morale of the people tasked with enforcing city policies, in part because they will receive angry complaints from other residents who didn’t get the same relief. He also wrote in the memo that the decisions represent irresponsible management of city funds that city employees are tasked with stewardship of, and he questions the fairness of subjectively deciding to make exceptions.

When I first read the memo, provided by council member Bill Holdeman, I was frankly shocked by the very critical tone Kjellin took with the people who employ him. Holdeman and fellow council member Jerry Kline expressed similar sentiments when asked about the memo, and Holdeman added that he thought Kjellin showed a lack of compassion through the decision-making process.

But on a second read of the letter and in an interview with Kjellin, he makes some good points. I’m not as concerned about morale as he is — not because it is unimportant, but because it isn’t as important to public policy as fiscal responsibility and fairness.

The decision to waive a $1,000 late fee cost the city money that it was by all rights owed. More importantly, it sets a dangerous precedent that other institutions can make late payments with the only consequence of having to appear in public and ask the council for forgiveness.

I also agree with Kjellin that making exceptions to established policy is a poor policy. It isn’t fair to the people who aren’t granted the same exceptions, and there will always be a personal element in such decisions that doesn’t have a place in policymaking. It invites people to appeal for leniency for even the slightest hardship and could force the council to make decisions on whose hardships count.

City administrators owe it to the councils that employ them, and moreover to the voters who elect those councils, to be open and honest when they disagree with decisions. Administrators do a disservice to the public when they merely act as “yes” men. They should be careful to avoid undercutting elected policy-makers, however.

I’m afraid the tone of Kjellin’s memo will lead council members to regard it as undercutting their authority, and that they will therefore discount the worthwhile arguments it contains.

Marion just went through a period in which the city administrator and council members often seemed to be at odds. It’s incumbent on both sides to make sure this situation doesn’t devolve into a repeat of what happened before. Administrators need to feel free to voice their opinions and know their opinions will be seriously considered, but they also need to know that ultimately, it’s the elected officials who will determine policy and exceptions to it.

— Adam Stewart

Last modified Dec. 8, 2011

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