Mayor, manager or both?: Former deputy borough attorney has another solution

Posted: Monday, July 20, 2009

I have been a supporter of having some form of borough manager for many years. I worked at the Kenai Peninsula Borough 1984-1994, and by the end of my tenure, it was evident to me that the borough had grown too big to be managed by a single elected official, especially by one who had little to no experience in running a very large company, like the borough.

The current systems -- elected mayor or council/assembly-appointed manager -- both have many flaws. One of the most glaring flaws in the elected mayor system is the instability and low employee morale that results from the frequent mayoral transitions: there have been five different borough mayors in the last 15 years. As a result, department directors become "yes men" (or women) because they are afraid of being fired, and they act out their fears on the employees they supervise.

Another problem with the elected mayor system is that, because the Kenai Peninsula Borough job is so big, the mayor has to rely too heavily on department directors. The mayor rarely interacts with direct service staff, and really has no idea what is going on at the borough, except what he is being told by the department directors.

There is also a lot of cronyism with the elected mayor system. Over the years, the borough mayor's office has become weighted down with staff, and many times the people who fill these jobs are the mayor's campaign staff, who may not be the best qualified people for these executive positions. When I started working at the borough in 1984, Mayor Stan Thompson had a secretary, and one assistant, Sam Best who was, in effect, the borough manager. The current mayor has five staff members.

Under the elected mayor system, because the borough mayor changed so often in the last 15 years, and because the job is so demanding and political, the borough mayor has not had the time to put into place good management practices that would help the borough become a more efficient, user-friendly operation. For example, the borough still hires department directors with no management training or experience, and does not provide or require management training. The borough has no effective quality control system for most of its operations. In a well-run private company, these bad management practices would not be tolerated.

However, having lived under the council-appointed manager system in the City of Kenai for the last 27 years, I have come to believe that this system has just as many if not more flaws. The worst flaw is that the manager is not accountable to the public, in any way.

Bad managers -- and there have been some -- simply do not care about what the residents want or need. They spend their time catering to what the current majority on the council wants, and their own private career goals. A bad manager can have a very adversarial relationship with city residents, and can neglect city services, and there is nothing that residents can do about it. There is no process for complaints against the manager, and the public is not permitted to participate in the manager evaluation process. Getting rid of a bad manager is almost impossible, for either the public or council (for example, the Kenai City Charter requires 5 out of 7 votes to remove a manager). On the other hand, with the elected mayor system, an unpopular or poorly performing mayor (in the public's eyes) can be voted out within three years.

In addition, having an assembly-appointed manager would give the borough assembly too much power. The current balance of power in the Kenai Peninsula Borough between the mayor and the assembly is just right.

I have discussed the pros and cons of mayor v. manager with many people and public officials in various parts of the state over the last few years. The best system I have seen is the elected mayor-appointed manager system like Anchorage has. That way, you get the best of both worlds -- an elected mayor to be accountable to the public, and an appointed manager to run the day to day operations of the municipality.

The Anchorage Charter, at Article V, Section 5.03, creates the municipal manager position, and makes the position appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the assembly. The Anchorage charter requires that the muncipal manager be "selected solely on the basis of professional qualifications." That should be some protection from cronyism hiring.

The borough assembly should take a serious look at the Anchorage system for our borough, rather than trying to take away the elected borough mayor system.

In my opinion, putting the borough manager question on the ballot, just to "test the waters," is a cop-out. I have not seen or heard wide-spread public approval for an appointed borough manager system. Let those who want to "test the waters" use the initiative process.

Kristine Schmidt is a Kenai attorney who served as deputy borough attorney for 10 years with the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

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