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OPINION: City manager a cure we don't need

As a historian, I object to the concept of a city manager. The city manager system was introduced at the beginning of the 20th century to combat corruption perpetrated by big-city political machines. At that time, city government was full of graf...

As a historian, I object to the concept of a city manager. The city manager system was introduced at the beginning of the 20th century to combat corruption perpetrated by big-city political machines. At that time, city government was full of graft and nepotism which the city manager, unelected and unaccountable politically, could clean up. I don't believe Mitchell city government is corrupt, rife with nepotism or in need of "cleaning up."

As a practical matter, I oppose the concept of a city manager. We have a unionized workforce, subject to negotiated rules and practices. Any city manager would have to work through the unions to effect changes in policy, personnel and practices, as we must now. In reality, no "sweeping" or "dramatic" change would be possible. Naturally, a city manager could replace department heads, as the mayor can now, but beyond that nothing of substance would change. In short, unless a city manager was going to "take over" the city in a dictatorial fashion by slashing all department heads and micromanaging every department, things would stay very much as they are today. In addition, folks from the School of Public Policy at the University of South Dakota, at a series of open forums on this subject, suggested that a city manager would cost in the neighborhood of $90,000 to $120,000 in salary, depending on the experience of the applicant, with benefit costs on top of that. Do we really need another level of government at roughly five times our current cost to do the same things that are being accomplished now? Are there better uses for your tax dollars, for example road repair, than hiring a city manager?

As a believer in our democratic system, I am adamantly opposed to a city manager form of government. At that same public forum, the USD experts showed a chart indicating that the average tenure of a city manager was three to five years before moving on, or being fired and moved along, to their next position. That's roughly the same term that our mayors serve now. We elect the mayor and the mayor must listen to the people, if they wish to be re-elected. That's not the case with a city manager, who never has to face the people in elections and may be less responsive to citizens' concerns as a result.

There are those who argue the city is "big business" in need of a "CEO" to run it. I agree, and we have one called "the mayor." There are those who believe that the city manager is the key to economic growth, visionary projects and the like. However, those USD Public Policy professionals categorically stated that the mayor and the City Council provide the vision -- NOT the city manager. The city manager merely carries out the "vision" of the elected city officials. Economic development would continue to be the main function of the Chamber and its various entities and not the responsibility of the city manager per se.

I have faith in democracy as well as in the people of Mitchell being willing to serve and participate in our city. I want elected officials, like the mayor, directly responsible to the people. I believe in a limited government that is careful with the tax dollars of its citizens. We have an effective system now, in terms of cost and accountability, that a city manager would not improve. A city manager is an expensive, even wasteful, bureaucratic addition to city government that is unnecessary, unneeded and unwarranted.

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