An analysis of the city’s new council-mayor form of government — aka “strong mayor” — from the group that put the charter change on the November 2010 ballot has created a long thread of emails among city officials.
The biggest point of contention is whether the new form of government is affecting City Council members’ ability to be responsive to their constituents.
Here are the emails, with a few minor tweaks, in the order I received them:
8:40 a.m. Wednesday
Dear Ms McNally, Senator McElhany, and Mr. Murphy,
Thank you for your analysis of our new form of government. As one of three council members who have served under both systems, I appreciate your suggestion that we not rush into further changes, or “tweaks”.
I’m also glad that you emphasize the “checks and balances” that were built into this new system. We have experienced some “growing pains” as we get used to this system. In addition to a new form of government and a new mayor, we also had six new council members. So, this has been a learning process for all of us over this last year for council and nine months for council and mayor.
One misconception, and I’ve been guilty of this as well, is the term “strong” mayor. We did not elect a strong mayor. We changed our form of government from council-manager to council-mayor, and then elected a mayor.
In some of the issues, where each branch has been trying to determine their roles and responsibilities (and authority), I’ve received admonishment from some citizens that “we elected a strong mayor and you should fully support him in what he is doing”. While I want to support the Mayor in his desire to make our city the best it can be, we did not change our form of government to “mayor-rubber stamp”. As a part of the checks and balances put into place, I believe we have the duty to examine each issue and offer, if appropriate, alternatives or suggested changes.
One issue I have with this new form is my inability to be as responsive to my constituents as in the past. We were elected by the citizens and they still look to us for assistance with everything from fixing potholes to code enforcement violations to public safety concerns. But we can no longer directly raise these citizen concerns with city staff. We need to go through a “liaison” who forwards our concerns to city staff. This can add delay in getting the citizens’ issues resolved and I lose the ability to provide direct feedback to the citizen with a status on their concern.
We have also changed our council makeup from 4 at-large, 4 district, and 1 mayor to 3 at-large and 6 district representatives. Where we used to elected the 4 at-large and 4 districts in different cycles, we will now elected 6 districts at a time which could result in a large turnover every 4, or at best 8, years. There is a steep learning curve and this could result in loss of continuity. In addition, it could make it easier for a faction to organize candidates in the 6 districts and, if successful, gain control of the council. As we saw in the last election with the 5 “reform team” candidates (which, thank God, were not successful), this is a real possibility. Perhaps we should look at 9 at-large or 9 districts with the 5 odd-numbered elected in one cycle and the 4 even-numbered in the next.
I am committed to making this new form of government work for the betterment of our city. We do face many challenges and it will take a cooperative effort between citizens, council, the Mayor, city staff, and business and civic leaders to achieve the goal that we all have of making this the best possible place to live, work, play, and raise our families.
Thank you for your continuing service to our community and for your support.
Council Member District 4
8:53 a.m. Wednesday
Andy, Mary Ellen, and Chuck,
Ditto Bernie’s comments on our appreciation as to your analysis and commentary on our new form of government. While I am not in complete agreement with everything you stated, I do believe you raise some valid points.
While I could be accused of being too close to the changes brought upon by this change of government, I would be willing to sit down with the three of you and do a “lessons learned” session based on experiences, frustrations, and successes after having been at this for close to a year.
Your call – let me know if you think this would be a worthwhile use of our collective time.
5:37 p.m. Wednesday
Councilor Herpin: I feel the need to respond to your comment about your inability to be as responsive to your constituents as in the past. You stated you can no longer directly raise these citizen concerns with City staff; but need to go through a “liaison” who forwards your concerns to City staff. You further added that this is causing a delay in getting the citizens’ issues resolved and as a City Councilor you lose the ability to provide direct feedback to the citizen with a status on their concern.
The ease of which a citizen request or Councilor question gets through our system has not changed with this new form of government; although I will admit there was some misunderstanding (from both the legislative and executive branch) during the transition in government. I believe as of January 2012 it is nearly the same as it was before the government change. When the issue you highlight above was surfaced as an issue by some Councilors, it was quickly agreed by the executive branch that Councilors may contact City staff directly for minor items that do not require significant staff time; such as constituent concerns/requests.
However, we did agree that any significant requests by Council (such as a project requiring considerable staff time) would be directed to the City Council Administrator who would then coordinate with City Chief of Staff in every attempt to support the two-week advance communication reciprocity agreed upon at a recent City Council retreat. I believe the City Council Administrator is developing a process for routing citizen requests received by Council members through the City’s citizen request system which has been available to all City staff and Councilors for some time. As you know, this online Footprints tool gives all of us the ability to log a citizen request and track the follow-up personally. As I understand it, there was initially a hiccup in the system of communication with City staff, but that was addressed months ago.
Please take my comments in the spirit they are intended; to educate all copied, but more importantly to provide meaningful support in providing even better service to our citizens in the months and years ahead.
Chief of Staff/Chief Administrative Officer
7:33 p.m. Wednesday
Thank you for the clarification. Hopefully this will facilitate better communication between the Council and their staff liaisons and the citizens they serve.
Mary Ellen McNally
7:55 a.m. Thursday
Thanks for the information; however, the reference cited was for questions that council members have on council agenda items, not constituent requests/concerns. But, I’ll take the clarification in the spirit offered that council members can directly refer constituent concerns to appropriate staff.
I often receive a concern or request about such things as a pothole, code violation, neighborhood traffic, etc. In the past, I forwarded these citizen requests/concerns directly to the appropriate staff member and they usually responded within a day acknowledging the request and offering some resolution or a time frame for a response. I could then respond to the citizen, again, usually within a day of getting their request.
Somehow we accomplished this with a couple of emails and no need for on-line databases or tracking systems or liaisons. As I mentioned at our first mayor’s counsel meeting, I do understand how staff can be overwhelmed with council requests when a citizen sends a concern to all 9 of us and several of us then forward that request on to staff or multiple staff members.
The ability for an elected council member to be responsive to constituents was the concern that I was addressing. Since being appointed to council in 2006, and elected in 2009, I have always tried to be responsive to constituent requests for assistance. When contacting staff, and the most often concern involves code violations, I’ve always had great cooperation, understanding, and response. I know that our city staff has the same goal as I do of providing the best possible service to our citizens. I just need to be able to ensure that citizen concerns get to staff in a timely manner.
As a citizen representative, I take the “representative” part of my job very seriously and don’t think that responsibility has changed with our new form of government. Again, I believe staff shares this concern. We just need to make sure we have a logical, and responsive, way of getting these concerns to them without a lot of bureaucracy getting in the way!
Council Member District 4
9:11 a.m. Thursday
I would also like to make a comment on response to my constituents. I have had no issue in helping my citizens who reach out to me but I prefer to further help them understand the new system and how they can proactively help themselves. My citizens really like the direct line they now have with the city and only come back to me if an issue is not resolved. Which by the way, to this date has only been one time. I am still working with her to see if we need changes at a systems level rather than a micro level (of just fixing her issue). I feel it is my job to speak for my district as a whole and be the person who can help carry out a vision/message that makes our city more customer friendly, business friendly, efficient and effective within our governmental structure.
My residents do feel they voted for a strong Mayor system and really want the Mayor to make decisions and be held accountable. They would like me to focus on MHS and Utilities. If I have any frustration it is not at the Mayors office but at the Council level that we need to truly focus on Utilities.