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Mayor's Report for February 2002

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Modern Government in America A Call for a New Management Form

By Michael Herman, Mayor

In recent years, there has been a nationwide movement towards more professionally managed forms of local government. From complex federal, state and county governmental regulations, to intricate financing packages, to labor laws that create pitfalls for modern government, the process of running even a small government has become increasingly complicated. Even for the smallest governments, the day-to-day operations have become a business of professionals. Here in Riverdale Park, a town of nearly 7,000 residents, with a budget of $3.4 million, relying on elected officials to provide part-time governance is not the best way.

As a lawyer, I am sure that my legal skills have helped me to successfully manage the minefields of laws, regulations and financial instruments needed to manage the town, but over the past 20 months since I became mayor, I have relied increasingly on our professional staff to manage the government's day-to-day operations. Specifically, our Town Administrator Patrick Prangley, has been performing the duties of a town manager, a role that encompasses greater duties than those of a town administrator.

Difference between a Town Manager and Administrator

The key distinction here is the hiring and firing authority over department heads. Under a town manager form, a professional who has the best chance to assess the operations of those departments manages the department heads, i.e., Police Chief and Public Works Director. The mayor will no longer do direct supervision of those department heads, but the mayor and council will have direct control over the town manager, who runs the operations of the town. Based on a new rule adopted by the council this year, all department heads shall have renewable two-year employment contracts anyway. As a result, the removal authority over department heads currently vested with the mayor does not actually exist currently.

Under this form of government, the voters are at the top of the government. The voters elect a mayor and council who set the policy objectives and laws for the town. The council has oversight authority over the manager and only a vote of the council could remove the manager.

What are the Advantages of this Government Form?

There are many advantages in a town manager form of government, which is why so many cities and towns across America have moved toward this form of government over the past several years. In fact, in the past decade the numbers of town manager-led local governments now exceed the number of mayor-managed systems.

The advantages under this system:

  • Most efficient form of government for part-time elected officials
  • Eliminates micromanagement of non-political decisions
  • Gives broader authority to Town Councilmembers than under our current mayor and council form of government
  • Allows management to be done by trained professionals, and allows elected officials to focus on enacting laws and setting policy
  • Department heads will make management decisions on operating their departments without regard to the whims of a single elected official
  • Provides a check and balance on the powers of the mayor by a broad group, also elected by the people
  • Requires the mayor to work with the council, not necessarily in opposition to it
  • Improved delivery of municipal services, since the service provider will do what is in the best interest of the town, not necessarily what is most politically expedient

Are there Disadvantages?

That depends on your perspective. If you like political micromanagement, then it is bad. If you want one person to have exclusive authority to fire department heads because they are not doing what is asked of them (regardless of the motivation), then it is a disadvantage. There is not an accountability problem; it makes the entire council more accountable for choices over management, instead of vesting that power in a single person.

Is there Still A Need for the Mayor?

Absolutely. The mayor is still the head of the government for official functions. The mayor still serves as the spokesperson for the town. The mayor still acts as the chair of the council and oversees all meetings. The major change is that the mayor will become a voting member of the council, whereas now the mayor only votes in the event of a tie. The mayor will still make committee assignments and appoint chairs for council committees and other boards and advisory committees used by the town. Under the proposed amendment, the mayor will still appoint the town attorney and will still be the political leader for policy setting.

Why Change the Form of Government Now?

When I ran for mayor in 2001, I told voters I was interested in moving the town to this form of government. Early in my Administration, meetings were held by the Legislative Committee to begin drafting a new law. Information from organizations specializing in municipal management was obtained and reviewed for possible charter language. The Chair of that committee went on extended leave and eventually resigned from office to care for a dying relative. This initiative got delayed for many months. However, because this was an important goal set forth by several councilmembers, some would like to resurrect it now before the current term expires in June.

In addition, for the past twenty months, I have asked Mr. Prangley to essentially serve as town manager. He has overseen the day-to-day operations of the entire town, not just his department. He has become the supervisor over department heads and I have asked those department heads to confer with him, not me, on operational management of their departments. I have asked Mr. Prangley to make suggestions on improving those departments and had him work with department heads to implement those changes. Most people will agree the management has worked well over this period. My role was primarily to provide political leadership, assist with negotiations and to provide general advice. However, I have not exercised my powers to micromanage because I believe it is not appropriate or effective. In addition, I moved code enforcement operations into the police department and out of the mayor' s office to de-politicize the choices made in enforcement. I believe delivering services based on political choices is wrong, but there is no assurance that future mayors will share that perspective.

Don't only Large Cities have this Form of Government?

No. A vast majority of new cities and towns in the past several decades have gone in this direction, and many others have changed to this system over the years. Here in Prince George's County, the most efficient towns and cities have moved in this direction. Currently, only Greenbelt, Bowie and Laurel have this form. However, even small towns in Maryland such as LaPlata (population less than 7,000 people), with identical departments as our town, have moved in this direction. Many cities would like to do this but are held back by lack of political will from the elected leadership. Unusually, here in Riverdale Park, the chief executive (the mayor) has been an advocate for this change. That is one reason it is even being given serious consideration.

What Next?

Charter and ordinance changes are being prepared for introduction at the March legislative session. They will not be acted upon until the April 7 legislative session at the earliest. The matter will be debated at the March 31 work session, where I will ask that an expert from an organization familiar with municipal management issues come to the council meeting to present the pros and cons of such changes. I encourage residents to attend the meeting to participate in the discussion.

Conclusion

While change sometimes comes hard, change is sometimes helpful to how we conduct business. What I had suspected as a councilmember for 8 years, and what I have learned as mayor for two years, has now been confirmed: the best way to manage government services is to have professional full-time management making these decisions. Part-time, political leadership does not always result in the best delivery of services, and, sometimes, elected officials make choices that are done for political expediency, not necessarily for the long-term health of the town. I hope the community will join me and other members of the council in supporting this change and will talk to their councilmembers about backing this legislation.

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