Just being nice doesn't solve problems

Before Marion rushes to hire another city administrator, it needs to face cold, hard facts that seem to have eluded well-meaning but naïve people quick to blame a succession of embattled city administrators on personality conflicts, contrarianship, and negativity.

Such glib and politically expedient explanations may sound nice on the surface, but they obscure the real problem, deeply rooted in the gravely flawed way in which Marion’s city government is organized.

Under law, Marion does not have a city manager in the way in which towns like Hillsboro do. Marion’s city administrator is not a chief executive. He is not a superintendent of schools or even a city manager. Statutorily, the city’s executive authority remains firmly vested in its mayor. Although the entire council hires and fires administrators, the administrator’s legal authority is technically akin to that of a chief of staff, serving as an assistant to the mayor.

If one were to translate Marion’s organizational structure onto the federal government, the mayor would serve both as president and as speaker of the House and majority leader of the Senate. The city administrator would be little more than a cabinet secretary. Yet many, especially councilmen who from time to time rightly or wrongly disagree with the mayor, tend to forget this. The results are ambiguity and a leadership vacuum that would try the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job.

It is little wonder mayors and administrators have been at odds practically since the adoption of this system. When a system fails once, it may be the result of personalities, contrarianship, or negativity. When it fails over and over again, you have to look at the system itself.

When Marion decided to break away from its old commissioner form of government, in which each of three elected officials had authority over specific areas, it did not fully embrace the city manager form of government specified in state law. Under that form, a city manager runs the city roughly in the way a superintendent runs a school district. The appointed manager is the chief executive while elected officials make the policies he or she enforces. The mayor, much like a school board president, has a policy-making role but no role in implementing policy.

Because Marion crudely grafted the idea of a city administrator onto an alternative mayor-council form of government, it allowed to remain intact legislation stating that the mayor retains final executive and administrative authority over all city departments. It is not as if Marion’s mayors have actually used this authority. Rather, it is the ambiguity over who ultimately is in charge that has been exploited, often by people other than the mayor and the administrator.

If Marion wants to hire someone to serve in the way city managers do, it needs to hire someone trained and experienced in that role (undoubtedly someone not currently or formerly living or working in Marion), and the mayor should revert to being the presiding officer of the council — no more, no less. If Marion wants to have the mayor be in charge, it needs to separate the mayor’s legislative and executive duties. Someone else should become the council president, and the city can hire whomever it pleases to serve as an administrative assistant to the mayor, who would continue are chief executive.

This is how other cities have managed to avoid the turmoil that naïve Marion residents blame on conflicts, contrarianship, and negativity. It is a tried and true approach. State law gives cities three distinct options on how to organize themselves. Marion, unfortunately, used home rule to choose No. 4, none of the above. Rose-colored glasses and plaintive pleas to just get along will never resolve that problem.

— Eric Meyer

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