Our view: We aren’t looking for ‘Nirvana’ at Centennial Hall
We think the city council/city manager relationship needs to be better defined and properly structured in order to be productive.
Repairing the city manager/city council system
Steamboat Today editorial board
Suzanne Schlicht, COO and publisher
Lisa Schlichtman, editor
Tom Ross, reporter
Diane Moore, community representative
Contact the editorial board at 970-871-4221 or editor@SteamboatT.... Would you like to be a member of the board? Fill out a letter of interest now.
When Steamboat Springs City Council sits down this autumn with a former city manager and several former council members for what will amount to a postmortem on council’s failed relationship with its departed city manager, it should be mandatory attendance for the 12 candidate running for council in the Nov. 3 election.
We were impressed, but not surprised, to read in an article published in today’s Steamboat Pilot and Today that city council members intend to include council candidates in a session at which they will ask themselves “How could we have done better?” in their relationship with fired city manager Deb Hinsvark.
The newspaper staff was already researching an in-depth article on the history of Steamboat city councils and their relationship with a series of city managers whose tenures were short-lived. Reporter Scott Franz discovered that, since 1986, only two of Steamboat’s six city managers have served more than four years.
Council is right to ask, “What went wrong?” It’s time to do some soul searching and set a course for a fresh start.
We think restoring the equilibrium between city council and the city manager’s office must begin by addressing the dysfunctional management processes through which the desires of city council are translated into actions by the city manager.
That begins with a strong council president whose role it is to set council’s agenda, incorporate the points of view of other council members and relay policy and operational direction to the city manager.
Former city manager Paul Hughes, still a respected member of the community and one of the two city managers who survived beyond four years, thinks the path to success for city managers here can be found in the city’s home rule charter. In essence, it calls for council members to supply the vision to create policy and leave it to the city manager to implement those policies.
Hughes says difficulties occur when either side oversteps. All too often, he said, a council member will be unable to resist telling the street superintendent to fix a specific pothole on a specific street. We understand Hughes’ point, but it also goes without saying that every member of city council must be willing to graciously field phone calls and emails from constituents who want the potholes fixed.
For that reason, we also think it’s implicit in Hughes’ explanation of how the city charter defines the roles of council members and managers, that Steamboat Springs’ new city manager be exceptionally responsive to inquiries from citizens. On an operational level, that will require a more formalized process, one that enables council members to communicate their constituents’ requests in a respectful and appropriate fashion.
An important strategy for city managers who have a desire to assume a leadership role on an important city goal, such as building a new public building, is to first “socialize the issue with council.”
What does that mean?
Before surprising any of his or her bosses in public, a city manager should sit down with the council president over a cup of coffee and float the issue by them before asking to have the matter placed on an upcoming agenda. Council work sessions are also an effective venue for respectfully communicating ideas and discussing city business and upcoming projects.
The objective of those sessions should be to establish managerial processes to guide decisions; prioritize issues; allow all points of view to be heard; and to develop, evaluate and discuss options that can then be finalized and voted on in regular council meetings.
Hinsvark told Steamboat Today recently that, in talking with counterparts who have been in the city manager game for most of their lives, “There’s this Nirvana when these seven people have respect for each other and work together toward a vision that they include you in. There’s this amazing feeling when you can get there.”
We aren’t holding out for Nirvana, but we think it’s reasonable to expect a city council/city manager relationship that is respectful and productive.
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