After more than 16 years as chief of staff to two different St. Louis County executives and more than 12 years as both a county and city manager, I am in a unique position to clean up a few, possibly misleading impressions left by a recent county Charter Commission debate over a possible change in governing formats.
The criticisms offered about the council-manager form of government are largely unfounded. The council-manager model, in which a professional manager is appointed and answerable to an elected council, is prominent in jurisdictions of all sizes. It is not, by any means, restricted to or more suitable for smaller jurisdictions or suburban municipalities.
That model is used by Los Angeles County, the country’s most populous county. Many other counties that are similar in size to St. Louis County and considered to be among the best-managed in the country also employ the council-manager form. This includes Hennepin County, Minnesota (Minneapolis); Mecklenburg County, North Carolina (Charlotte); Cobb County, Georgia (Atlanta) and Fairfax County, Virginia.
Concerns expressed about a lack of diversity among city and county managers were also misplaced. While it is undoubtedly true that there are fewer women and minorities currently serving as city managers than would be justified by their percentage of the overall population, the same could be said about elected officials and the top executives of many private companies. Diversity is, however, increasing rapidly among city and county managers, especially in larger and more urban jurisdictions.
There are also many variations in how the council-manager form of government can be implemented. While the office of an elected mayor or county executive is sometimes eliminated as part of a change to the council-manager form of government, this is not always the case. The city of Charlotte and the city I currently serve, Chesapeake, Va., have both an elected mayor and a city manager.
In Fairfax County, the county manager holds the title of county executive — an appointed rather than elected position. My point is simple: The council-manager form of government can be readily modified to best fit the needs and expectations of almost any community being served.
Having said all this, preventing corruption is not a very good reason to change to the council-manager form of government. No form of government and no new charter provision can fully protect against corruption. Temptation exists for elected and appointed officials alike. Certainly, it is true that a city manager is much less likely than an elected county executive or a mayor to favor political donors. Still, if you look around, you will also find plenty of stories about corruption in council-manager jurisdictions.
If I were advising the charter commission, I would suggest they focus on the goals and standards they want St. Louis County government to achieve along with the concerns or dangers they wish to avoid.
Strong-mayor (or strong-county executive) governments generally have a greater capacity to react quickly and mobilize to implement critically needed changes. A city or county manager typically needs to develop a broad consensus of the council they serve before embarking on most significant city or county initiatives. At the same time, it is certainly true that a strong mayor or strong county executive can cause considerably more damage to their jurisdictions if they are inept, inattentive, or corrupt. There are typically more constraints on a poor manager and it is easier to change managers than to change elected officials.
Ultimately, the question may come down to whether the commissioners value the upside potential of an outstanding elected county executive more highly than they fear the downside potential of a poor one? The appointment of a county manager can reduce some of the modern-day risks of polarized, partisan politics. However, managers also come with widely different levels of experience, professionalism and ethical values. Many are also hired and fired each year for purely political reasons. Consequently, characterizing city and county managers as being immune from political influence is naïve.
Moving to the council-manager form of government is a viable and legitimate option the charter commission should certainly consider. Still, this is not the only reasonable choice nor is it an effective antidote that can forestall corruption. In the end, it will be up to citizens and elected officials to demand that the county’s policy makers and key managers are capable and conscientious.
Jim Baker served as director of administration and chief of staff to St. Louis County Executives George “Buzz” Westfall and Charlie Dooley from 1991 to 2007. Since then, he has served over 12 years as a county and city manager for York County, South Carolina and Chesapeake, Virginia.