A city manager form of government has worked well for two South Dakota cities that changed to it in recent years, representatives from those cities said Monday night.
Aberdeen Mayor Mike Levsen, who also served as city manager of the Hub City, and Brookings Mayor Tim Reed and City Manager Jeff Weldon discussed why they think the change was embraced in their cities and would work in Mitchell during a meeting at Mitchell Technical Institute's Technology Center. About 40 people attended the second of two meetings on the proposed change.
Both Reed and Weldon said they are big fans of the city manager form of government. Weldon said it provides clear division between politics and public service. That's even codified in state law.
"It narrows that funnel of direction, (and) supervision with city staff," Weldon said. "It provides that level of political insulation for staff."
Reed said the change in government has allowed Brookings to act quicker and made it more progressive. He said mayors and city managers have differing views on how government should operate, and that's a healthy thing.
"His view wins out," Weldon said with a smile, drawing laughter from the audience, many of whom were city employees or members of Focus 2020, which sparked discussion of the topic in Mitchell.
Reed said Mitchell, which is very much like Brookings in size, would be a good fit. "It's a perfect community for having this kind of government," he said.
Reed said he wasn't active in city government when the government switch was made in Brookings 12 years ago. He said before the change, elected commissioners were charged with supervising individual departments, whether they had skills or experience in those areas.
"It wasn't a good role to have them in," Reed said.
A good city manager needs to be able to direct employees, work with citizens and cooperate with elected officials, Reed said. He or she must also be "an excellent communicator."
"You need a CEO for the town, yet you need someone who can take direction from a board," he said.
In Brookings, a city manager needs the support of four elected officials at all times, Reed noted, and has to understand who has the final say. He said Weldon told him during a job interview that if they disagree, the council's view will win and they will move on.
Weldon said he views himself as the council's "chief policy adviser." He said he feels a successful mayor in a city manager form of government must focus on "big picture" policy planning.
He recommended insisting a newly hired manager buy a home and get involved in clubs, churches and civic organizations. Even then, it can be a tough job, Weldon said.
"This is a politically hazardous position," he said. "I've got the scar tissue to prove it."
It's also a position that often pays off for the city, even with a big salary added to the city payroll. In Redwood Falls, his salary doubled, ending with him making more than $80,000 a year. But during that time, he brought in $12 million in grants.
Brookings' six council members, like the mayor, are elected at-large by voters in the entire city and Reed said he favors that. Aberdeen elects representatives from wards, but Levsen said he feels atlarge elections are fairer and provide better qualified officials. Mitchell elects eight aldermen, two each from four wards.
With a city manager, the mayor isn't a day-to-day executive, but he or she still has a vital role, Reed said.
"You really are responsible for keeping things moving forward," he said. "You're the first call."
He said government officials and journalists call a mayor first. Levsen agreed and said his city manager abhors dealing with the media.
Levsen say it's important to find the right people to fill key positions.
"A lack of ego or defensiveness over who's in what position" is crucial, Levsen said. People are more important than the government structure.
Levsen explained that Aberdeen has gone down a winding road in government structure in the past seven years. It has had a commission with a part-time mayor, a commission with a full-time mayor, a five-year transition with a full-time mayor and a city manager, and now a city manager and a part-time mayor.
Aberdeen hired Lynn Lander, who was an experienced city manager, Levsen said.
The main reason to hire a city manager is to "have somebody who knows what the h*** they're doing," he said.
Lander was that man, Levsen said. Although Levsen had been city manager for five years, he said Lander impressed him with his knowledge in a variety of areas.
"He is very adept at finance," Levsen said. He also showed experience with planning and zoning and in numerous other areas.
A talented city manager is also protection for the city "if you elect a real clinker" as mayor, Levsen said.
There are negatives. Levsen said he was paid $55,000 a year and the city covered another $10,000 in expenses. Now, the city manager costs the city $150,000 a year and he is paid $15,000 a year. He said he wanted $20,000 but "the weasels on the City Council" only gave him $15,000 and tried to prevent him from having an office in City Hall.
The three officials were unanimous on several things: When hiring a city manager, make the right choice and take enough time. Brookings declined to hire anyone from a pool of candidates three years ago. In the 12 years Brookings has had a city manager, it has had three men in the job while also employing two temporary managers during job searches.
Don't hire a consultant to search for a city manager, they said. Levsen was typically blunt, terming it "an absolute waste of money." He told the Mitchell City Council to be prepared for a lot of poor candidates seeking the job.
But he said there is the right candidate out there.
Council members asked a few questions, mostly about the process to select a manager. Council member Mel Olson, however, remained critical of the concept. "What do you do?" Olson asked the two mayors.
Levsen said he welcomes conventions and does a lot of ceremonial work. But he said he also consults with the city manager every day. "I'm like a consultant, I guess," Levsen said.
Weldon said he relies on the guidance of the "political leaders of the community" who are charged with setting broad policy direction.
Olson said when he served in the Legislature and during his time on the council, he has prided himself on constituent service.
As an example, he asked what would happen if a company cut down trees, left them in someone's pristine yard and blocked drainage. That homeowner would call his alderman, he said.
"And he's going to be on me until something's done," Olson said. What happens if a city manager fails to act on the problem, he said, and the elected official takes the political heat?
"I'm the guy who's going to be voted out because I'm not dealing with the problem," Olson said.
Weldon said he would collect all the facts and get the trees removed. If need be, city crews would do it and he would bill the company. He also said the city manager could be fired or reprimanded for failing to respond to an elected official and a citizen.
Levsen, however, said it was a civil issue and he would advise the homeowner to take it up with the company.
The answers clearly didn't satisfy Olson, who said as he left the meeting that he felt he was the only person on the council who still believed in democracy.
A few members of the audience offered comments. One man said he wants to see Mitchell's elected leaders emulate Brookings and Aberdeen in looking to the future. "I'd like to move our council up to that level," he said.
Another man said while Mayor Lou Sebert goes above and beyond his required duties and the council does a solid job, that may not be the case with elected leaders in the future. "Now is the opportune time to take that step and make that impact in our community," he said.