Déjà vu with city manager? Not exactly; administrator plan is different
Mitchell City Councilman Mel Olson isn’t afraid to say no.
Olson was the only one of eight council members who opposed adding a city manager to the city’s government in 2011. Voters largely agreed with him and rejected the proposal by nearly a 2 to 1 margin.
And now, Olson is similarly skeptical about possibly adding a city administrator — an idea that surfaced at the Oct. 7 council meeting.
“At this point, I think it is more bureaucracy and more expense,” he said.
There are 20 cities in South Dakota with city administrators, according to information presented at the Oct. 7 meeting. Those cities include Pierre, which, with an estimated population of 13,914, is similar in size to Mitchell, which has an estimated population of 15,484. There are six cities in South Dakota with city managers — Aberdeen, Brookings, Canton, Sturgis, Vermillion and Yankton.
“It seems to me a city administrator would be a good thing if your city government was in chaos, but it’s not,” Olson said.
Though he does not support adding a city administrator at the moment, Olson said he will keep an open mind as the process continues.
Manager vs. administrator
Yvonne Taylor, executive director of the South Dakota Municipal League, explained that though similar in name, a city administrator is different than a city manager.
“A city manager is actually a change in the form of government and it takes an election,” Taylor said. “That person then has powers that are set out by statute.”
An entire chapter of South Dakota’s codified laws is dedicated to the rules and regulations governing city managers. For a city to add a city manager, the law says, a petition to place the proposal on a ballot must be signed by 15 percent of the city’s registered voters, as happened in Mitchell in 2011.
State law also lays out the general powers of city managers, which include supervising the city’s administration; advising the city’s governing body of the city’s finances; submitting an annual budget; taking part in city meetings; and introducing ordinances or resolutions.
No such statutes or guidelines exist in state law for city administrators.
“Their job description and everything is completely determined by the city council,” Taylor said, referring to city administrators.
Mitchell City Council President Jeff Smith, who supports adding a city administrator, said a mayor and council would still be elected. A city administrator would oversee the city’s various department heads on a day-to-day basis and answer directly to the mayor and council, he said.
“All we’re doing is looking at the organizational chart,” he said. “The form of government is not changing.”
“I firmly believe we need to have a person in charge on a day-to-day basis,” he added.
Smith said he would prefer a city administrator, who would presumably have financial and managerial experience, to a full-time mayor, who may have no such experience. The city, which will have a budget of about $33 million in 2014, is too large and complex to be overseen efficiently by a part-time mayor, he said. Mitchell pays its mayor a wage that’s equivalent to part-time, and the mayor sets his or her own hours.
“I think there are maybe efficiencies we aren’t taking advantage of without looking at the whole system,” Smith said.
Four on council undecided
The Daily Republic interviewed all eight members of the Mitchell City Council about the city administrator proposal. Three support it, one opposes it and four are undecided.
Council Vice President Dan Allen and Councilman Steve Rice join Smith in support of adding a city administrator.
“I believe we’re missing out on efficiencies and communication across departments,” Rice said.
Mayor Ken Tracy has said he introduced the idea of adding a city administrator or switching to a full-time mayor due to the retirement of longtime Public Works Director Tim McGannon, who plans to retire in December.
One possibility, Smith said, is to use the money typically set aside for McGannon’s salary to hire one person, who would then act as both city administrator and city engineer. As of the city’s required annual publication of its wages and salaries in January, McGannon was being paid an annual salary of $88,839.
Allen believes a city administrator’s salary could be offset by efficiencies that could be found within the city’s various departments by adding the position.
“They need someone that is a full-time city administrator to manage the day-to-day operations and make everyone fiscally responsible,” Allen said. “There is fat in every budget. You can cut it out.”
Smith and Allen both supported the failed proposal to add a city manager in 2011. Rice was not a council member at the time.
Smith, Allen and Rice all said they would prefer a city administrator to a full-time mayor. There are three cities in South Dakota with full-time mayors: Sioux Falls, Rapid City and Watertown.
“I want someone in that position who knows business,” Allen said. “We can’t have a part-time guy. He’s not going to be able to figure out everything.”
Smith said the city plans to invite city administrators from Pierre and Brandon to speak about their positions at a future city council meeting.
Councilman Marty Barington said he is leaning toward supporting the addition of a city administrator, but is yet to make a final decision. Barington supported the city manager proposal in 2011.
“I’m definitely open to listening and investigating the option,” he said, referring to a city administrator. “I think we need to take a good, hard look.”
Councilmen Phil Carlson and Randy Doescher both said they have not decided how they would vote on the addition of a city administrator or a switch to a full-time mayor. Neither was on the council when the city manager proposal arose in 2011.
“It’s not out of the realm of possibility that something should be done,” Carlson said. “If it looks like we should stick with what we’ve got, I’m fine with that, too.”
Doescher questions whether the decision to add a city administrator or switch to a full-time mayor should be up to the council at all.
“That question should really be decided by the voters,” he said. “It’s their money we’re spending.”
City Attorney Carl Koch believes the decision to hire a city administrator could not be referred to a public vote because it is an administrative decision equivalent to the hiring of any other city employee.
Councilwoman Susan Tjarks also is undecided, though she sees merit in the prospect of adding a city administrator. Tjarks was not on the council when the city manager proposal came up in 2011.
“I’m really anxious to hear what people in the community think about it,” she said.
Tjarks said she hears valid arguments on both sides of the issue.
“I think, most importantly, we have to have a person in place able to manage the big picture of where our city needs to be,” Tjarks said.