Speaker says manager-led government is good, but electing good people is better

Whether Bainbridge’s government sticks with its traditional political model or switches to one rooted in the business world, City Hall will remain only as good as the people chosen to run it.

That was the message municipal government expert Carl Neu drove home during a Tuesday night forum exploring the differences between mayor- and manager-led cities. Islanders will vote May 19 on whether to do away with the city’s elected mayor position in favor of a manager hired by the City Council.

“As you get into this question, try to separate yourselves from personalities and decide what makes sense structurally,” the Colorado-based consultant said to the over 100 people gathered in Bainbridge High School’s commons. “There’s never been a form of government that can overcome the foibles of humanity.”

While a manager-led government is no “silver bullet,” Neu characterized it as generally more cost-effective, efficient and transparent than the mayor form.

Neu was invited to speak by the Bainbridge Resource Group, a government watchdog organization that has taken no official position on the May 19 ballot measure, although some key members are campaigning for the manager form.

According to Neu, the first manager-led governments were developed in response to the corruption ailing several cities in the early 1900s.

“This was the time of Boss Tweed…and the powerful machines that got things done,” Neu said. “There was too much emphasis on politics, power and control and too little emphasis on providing good public service.”

City leaders looked to the business world for an improved model of leadership. Borrowing its structure from corporations, the city of Staunton, Virginia developed the first American manager-led government in 1908.

“It’s a not a political model, it’s a corporate model, with a board of directors and a CEO,” Neu said.

With much of the corporate world in turmoil, an audience member asked Neu why Bainbridge would want a government modeled after big business.

Neu stressed that city managers have a professional code that elevates their performance beyond that of corporate CEOs.

“City managers have a code of ethics that’s very strongly enforced by their peers,” he said. “That’s the biggest difference.”

Under the mayor form, the executive branch is chosen by the electorate to serve as a “check” in the balance of power with the legislative, or council, branch.

The manager form places the executive under the authority of the legislative body, streamlining policy development and implementation.

“When (the council) sets a direction, they simply do a Jean-Luc Picard and say ‘Make it so,’” Neu said, referring to a famous line by a spaceship captain in the Star Trek TV show.

Most American cities and towns are now under the manager form. In cities with populations of 10,000 to 24,000, about 53 percent are led by managers. About 63 percent of cities with populations in the 25,000- to 50,000-range have managers at the helm, Neu said.

Washington still prefers the mayor form. Of the state’s 280 cities, only about 19 percent are led by managers, according to Neu.

Neu said cities often switch to a manager-led government when strife between elected officials reaches an unbearable level.

“What killed the mayor form was corruption, collusion and cronyism,” he said.

One of the “inherent traps” of mayor-led governments is that city staff loyalty is to the mayor, Neu said. A mayor at odds with a council may withhold or block access to staff or withhold information to serve a political agenda.

Neu stressed that agenda-driven conflicts are tied less to a structure and more to the people elected within that structure.

“The (mayor form) works well when the mayor is very transparent and very open,” he said.