On Labor Day, Driving Out the Professionals

Driven Out
Driven Out | Public access source

Just in time for Labor Day's celebration of work and the people who do it, Stephen Eide thinks that some workers aren't worth their pay. Eide is is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Center for State and Local Leadership, a think tank with a market-based orientation to public policy issues.

In the interest of politics, he'd like to get rid of city managers.

City administrators -- particularly in the CEO-like post of manager -- have been falling down on the job, Eide says, pointing to cities like Vallejo, Bell, Stockton, Compton, San Bernardino, Upland, Vernon, and San Diego with their indictments and bankruptcies. In place of a non-partisan technician managing the day-to-day business of city government, Eide proposes management by the "strong mayor" system.

Think a "Chicago-style" mayor (if you want to be cynical) or someone more Bloomberg-like hiring, firing, and calling the shots.

The profession of city management took shape in the middle years of the Progressive Era (roughly 1890 to 1920), in opposition to the machine politics and corrupt practices that flourished in too many cities and towns a hundred years ago. In California, a preference for technicians over politicians was coupled in 1911 with state constitutional amendments that eventually made every elected position at the local level officially non-partisan.

Today, most of the state's 480 cities have an elected city council, a mayor appointed annually from among the council members for a mostly ceremonial role, and a city manager who hires department heads, drafts the city budget, and makes sure the trash is collected and the cops are on the street.

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Eide fears that California's city managers stick too close to these commonplaces. Managers lack, he says, the boldness in these hard times to do what's really needed: lay off municipal workers, shrink pension obligations to employees, and answer demands to downsize city government rapidly and permanently.

Eide's hearing is obviously better than mine is. In 32 years of working with and for the residents of a working-class town (with plenty of vocal Reagan-and-Bush-Democrats), I never head anyone demand an end to a program the city provided.

My neighbors know that their city contracts for most of its services, has a small workforce, and relies on the council-manager system to maintain their quality of life. My neighbors are acutely aware of the value of their "right size" city. They tell us so in polling going back more than 25 years.

Not every city has been so well run and for so long. Not every city has -- as mine, Lakewood, does -- a manger with so many ways to pinch a penny. The council-manager system doesn't guarantee that kind of success. As Robert J. O'Neill Jr., executive director of the International City/County Management Association, notes: No system prevents fools from being appointed managers or fools being elected to city councils . . . or as mayor.

Eide is entirely correct on one point. The city managers I know are insufficiently ideological. They are, to my knowledge, moved by the conviction that the habits of everyday life are to be respected, that political choices always come with unintended consequences, and that the common good begins with the ideas we have in common about the places in which we live. That makes city managers poor agents of radical change.

If you should meet your city manager this Labor Day, you might want to thank her or him for being so genuinely conservative. It's a big part of the job.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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