Bureaucracy or Bust?

At a May 12 forum hosted by the Johnson County Council on Aging, county supervisor candidates were asked, “Do you favor the hiring of a county manager?” Only one candidate, Janelle Rettig, answered “no,” but after the forum, Candidate Mike Carberry said he spoke too hastily regarding his affirmative answer. We wish that all candidates for the board of supervisors had said ‘no.’

Why are we opposed to bringing in a highly paid ‘professional’ to manage the county’s business? One has only to look at the city council-manager form of government: It is the most efficient way for the bureaucracy to get rid of the pesky democratic process—the democratic process that keeps alive the possibility of citizens actually exerting control over local affairs.

In the council-manager form of government, the city council, an elected body, should theoretically develop policy, but it rarely does so. Instead it cedes nearly all authority to an unelected person (the city manager) who in turn supervises an unelected staff. The council-manager form of government is not democratic.

The city council initiates practically nothing on its own. It spends some of its time minimally debating and usually approving various staff proposals, passing resolutions of one kind or another—originated and written either by the staff or community organizations—blandly smiling as the mayor hands out awards to high-achieving eight and nine year olds and allotting a short period of agenda time to public comment. During this time, citizens may stand beneath the council’s elevated platform and talk, not to exceed five minutes per person. While public comment is underway, council members are usually as stone-faced as a local version of Mt. Rushmore. They ask no questions and engage in no debate; the mayor thanks each person for coming and “letting your views be known.” At council work sessions, where the real decisions are made, the public is not permitted to speak.

Watching the bi-weekly formal council meetings is nearly as thrilling as watching dust motes drift.

Generally, the responsibilities of the city manager and staff include preparation of the annual budget, informing and advising the council on current issues and future needs of the city, planning future real estate developments and the resulting expansions of public services, recommending zoning changes and directing the day-to-day operations of all city departments except police and legal. Iowa City’s city manager is paid $170,000 with generous benefits. No matter how much economic expansion we have ‘to expand the tax base’ residential taxes continue to increase.

Council members currently make $7,072 annually; the mayor earns $8,070. Given that their main responsibility is to adopt what comes from the staff and is forwarded to them by the manager, they are grossly overpaid; it’s no wonder that so few citizens choose to run for election to the council after they see the pounds of bureaucratic bullshit in the packets delivered to council members for each meeting.

Meanwhile, at the county, the board of supervisors meet in an ordinary room (no elevated throne for them); citizens can address the board on any topic that is being discussed and supervisors often engage with them. The board runs the county’s affairs and makes meaningful decisions. There are five supervisors; terms are four years and staggered, so that either two or three seats are open in each election. If citizens don’t like what’s being done, they can elect new supervisors. Split votes are relatively common, and occasionally noisy policy disagreements occur. Supervisors will make $56,678 for fiscal year 2015, and without doubt they work for that money. The total of their salaries is $283,390. Why would anybody want to hire a professional manager at $170,000 or more a year and leave voters with nothing to vote for but five rubber stamps? We have enough of those already at city hall.

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