Council-manager system every bit as corruptible as any other system

Scott Sheets (courtesy of Channel 21)

Dear Editor:

I oppose A Better Ascension’s attempt to abolish Ascension’s parish presidency in favor of a “council-manager” style of government for several reasons.  First off, our Parish Council has been dysfunctional for years and I want a parish president to check its unlimited power.  The Council (NOT the parish president) has appointed a rubber stamp Planning Commission which has approved subdivision after subdivision after subdivision with no thought to installing infrastructure sufficient to handle increasing demand on our roads, schools, law enforcement, drainage system, etc.

I spoke against ABA at a recent Strategic Planning meeting along with other citizens who expressed concern that the group is Political Action Committee claiming to be a Non-Profit.  The group seems to be well-funded and I want to know the source.  If ABA’s plan to abolish the parish presidency is successful, do you doubt that same big money will target six Council seats in the 2019 elections?  That’s all it would take to complete the corporate takeover of Ascension Parish.

I have spoken with several of the private citizens who joined forces with ABA-PAC and not one of them can explain how its proposed amendments to Ascension’s Home Rule Charter improves local governance.  Meaningless statistics and scripted quips do not an argument make.  Before seeking to erase one branch of local government, and eliminating its corresponding check on Council power, I would have expected those individuals to have done some research.  ABA invited the County Administrator from Columbia County GA to make its pitch at Strategic Planning.

I am disappointed to find otherwise because the information is readily available.  A ten minute Google search led me to:

Frameworks for Understanding Local Government Corruption: Deconstructing the Case of Bell, California by the Thom Reilly, Director-Morrison Institute for Public Policy & Professor, School of Public Affairs, Arizona State University.  Professor Reilly’s treatise was prepared for presentation at the 2017 Western Political Science Association’s recent convention.   The good professor’s conclusions are summarized below:

Is the City and County Manager the new boss? City managers, in the reform government, are supposed to be a professional employee of the council who implements the policy set forth by the council through a staff of professional employees. The council-manager form, originally designed to stave off corruption, has shown the ability to be co-opted. This co-opting, whether it comes from the control of higher levels of government (i.e.: Guschina & Kononenko, 2017), or from a political monopoly as described in Bell (Reilly, 2016; Trounstine, 2008); suggest that these managers are susceptible to the same corrupting influences as elected officials.

The boundaries between the two traditional forms of municipal government are blurring, which may be a good thing. Council-manager forms can incorporate district voting to increase minority representation; strong-mayor forms can incorporate a professionally trained administrator. Still, basic questions remain: Is dishonesty in local government institutional? Are there aspects of government and politics that inevitably lead to corruption, regardless of who is in power?

Perhaps we should look more closely at what might contribute to corruption in council-manager governments, the dominant municipal form in the U.S. Long-term city managers can become entrenched and vulnerable to the same corrupting influences as those who occupy elected positions. While term limits have reduced the longevity of some elected offices, term limits for local officials are not as popular as they are for state or federal officials.

The role of the city manager/ city administrator and his/her relationship to the elected council is key. With elected officials terming out in staggered terms, a politically astute city manager can ensure his or her long-term survival. Increasingly, a complementary relationship between elected and appointed officials is emerging that focuses on reciprocal influence and overlapping responsibilities. Obviously, corrupt or unethical people elected or appointed to public office corrupt local government. And those determined to be corrupt will not be swayed by any amount of ethical training. It follows that the best way to achieve good governance is to elect or hire people to positions of public trust that are honest and conduct themselves in ethical ways.

Still, individuals holding power will always face temptations to abuse it, so strong check- and balance systems are essential. Elected boards should exercise primary oversight by careful selection and evaluations of city managers. Regular legal reviews and audits are essential, with the attorneys and auditors reporting to the Council instead of the city manager. Other important elements go beyond structure and encompass transparency, and engagement by residents, civic groups and businesses.

Even when a traditional check-and-balance system is in place and working, city managers/administrator can wield a good deal of power and influence. He/she must continually balance the interests of the city as a whole with the agendas of his/her bosses, the elected officials. Managers can get caught up in board politics and risk incurring the displeasure of a majority—a sure recipe for unemployment. On the other hand, many elected officials quickly realize that they must work well with the individual who directly controls city staff and resources. Not doing so could place a board member in danger of not fulfilling campaign promises or of being seen as unresponsive to his/her constituents. A city manager with good communication skills can find ways to make this balance happen, and enjoy strong support from the elected body.

When there is little turnover of elected officials and their city managers, problems can arise. Over time, these relationships can develop into a closed and comfortable system that is difficult for outsiders, including residents to penetrate. This can nurture a culture in which wrongdoing flourishes.

Yet in the end, debates over governmental structures and regional arrangements, while important, somehow fail to satisfy. As noted, events in Bell were influenced by several trends. Some well beyond their control. If such factors indeed help set the stage, all that was needed was someone with the right credentials and the wrong motives to come along. Unfortunately, bad motives, willing cronies and vulnerable populations are not in short supply in LA County or elsewhere. That’s why the story of Bell should serve not only as a case study but also as a warning.

There is no system of government to cure what ails Ascension Parish.  We must elect better candidates to office, starting with the next parish president.

Sincerely,

Scott Sheets

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