Sunday, January 3, 2010

BEAT BYTE: Council Vote May Change City Manager Powers

1)  COLUMBIA COUNCIL:  First vote on major change to city manager powers
2)  TOO MUCH FOR APRIL?   City Manager pushes five City Charter changes
3)  "MEDDLERS":  Did former councilman blast current council on radio show?

COLUMBIA COUNCIL:  First vote on major change to city manager powers
COLUMBIA, 1/3/10  (Beat Byte) -- In its first major push to balance power at City Hall more equitably between voters, taxpayers, council members, and the Office of City Manager Bill Watkins (left), the Columbia City Council will take up legislation tomorrow night to alter a key provision in the Home Rule Charter of the City of Columbia, the city's guiding constitution. 
The change -- which voters must approve -- would allow council members a so-called "advise and consent" role in the hiring and firing of top city administrators.  "The city manager shall appoint and remove department heads only with the advice and consent of the city council," the amendment reads, leaving unclear exactly what form the council's new role will take. 

After its introduction and 6-1 support at the council's last meeting in December, city attorney Fred Boeckmann has apparently fast-tracked the amendment, scheduling it to appear with five other charter changes on the April 6, 2010 ballot.   The move is a surprise because on its introduction by 3rd Ward councilman Karl Skala just two weeks ago, Skala only proposed "formal discussion" of the idea for future meetings, without any defined ballot timing. 
"I just want to open the idea for debate," Skala (right) repeatedly emphasized. 
Community wide discussion over a greater role for council members in senior level hiring/firing commenced over a year ago, after what some believed was the untimely and ill-advised departure of Columbia Water and Light director Dan Dasho.   Unanswered concerns about his successor, Kraig Kahler, and the dramatic escalation of Kahler's subsequent legal problems, has encouraged the process. 
Questions about City Manager Bill Watkins' power have also grown, reaching a nadir this year after he stepped out of his charter-defined role as policy implementer and into the role of policy maker -- a role the Charter exclusively reserves for the city council. 
Without the council's knowledge or consent, Watkins placed the now infamous "eminent domain" ordinance on the City Council's all-important consent agenda, where items are voted on without debate or public discussion, essentially as "done deals."  
Were it not for sharp eyes and loud protests, City Hall could have then used eminent domain to take land from several private citizens for a new State Historical Society museum. 
So singularly influential was former city manager Ray Beck that Inside Columbia magazine named him—not long-term mayor Darwin Hindman—Columbia's most powerful person when Beck was still in office. 
Proposed charter change
Council Agenda Item VIII B7-10
The Columbia City Charter
TOO MUCH FOR APRIL?   City Manager pushes five City Charter changes
COLUMBIA, 1/3/10  (Beat Byte) -- In addition to the city manager's hiring powers, the Columbia City Council will also
consider five so-called "housekeeping amendments" to the city's Home Rule Charter at its meeting Monday night.
Columbia city manager Bill Watkins has prepared, introduced, and recommended the housekeeping amendments. 
Ostensibly designed to streamline city management, the proposed charter changes may head en masse to the April 6, 2010 ballot, an issue that has critics concerned with so-called "ballot stacking."  Council members have their own priorities for charter changes -- including a new role in the hiring of senior level city administrators -- that supporters worry may be lost in the charter change crowd.   
Editorial note:  At least three of the City Manager's proposed changes (starred below) -- including #4,  which has such vague language it almost seems comical -- can and should wait for a future ballot. 
The City Manager's five proposed charter changes are:   
1)  Allow the city manager to designate an assistant city manager as acting city manager in the event of the city manager’s absence or disability.
*2)  Eliminate the restriction on transfer of funds within the first six months of a fiscal year.
3)  Remove the requirement that the director of the Water and Light Department be a registered engineer.
*4)  Clarify what constitutes a valid signature, eliminate the maximum number of signatures on a candidate petition, and "slightly adjust" the wording of candidate petitions for clarity; "slightly alter" the filing period for candidate petitions; and provide additional time to process council candidate, initiative, referendum, and recall petitions. 
*5)  Allow city funds in any city depository to be secured by the same kinds of securities that secure state funds in state depositories. 
See Staff report at end:
Section V.  Items B382-9 to B386-9
"MEDDLERS":  Did former councilman blast current council on radio show?
COLUMBIA, 1/3/10  (Beat Byte) -- A voice that sounded suspiciously similar to former 4th Ward Columbia city councilman and Central Missouri Humane Society board member Jim Loveless blasted the city council for considering Home Rule Charter Changes that would diminish the power of Columbia City Manager Bill Watkins.
Calling several council members "meddlers" on today's KFRU Sunday Morning Roundtable radio talk show, the caller -- who did not identify himself -- said, "I just hope there are only three of them," referring to the possibility of a fourth vote majority in favor of placing the charter changes -- which must be approved by voters -- on the April ballot.   
The call is newsworthy because similarly to former Presidents, former council members rarely criticize their successors in public. 
Pointed and biting in his criticisms, the caller joined an ongoing conversation about proposed Charter changes that would give city council members more say over such manager duties as hiring and firing key personnel.  
Local attorney and talk show regular Skip Walther likened the proposals to "the camel getting its nose under the tent," the camel in this case being a move away from a council-manager toward a council-mayor form of government, where the mayor has many of the powers currently vested in the city manager.   
From the "sky-is-falling" tone of the conversation, which also included local attorney and talk show regular David Shorr, Charter changes that reduce the city manager's power will be greeted with howls from the city's old-line establishment.   Shorr and Walther have repeatedly implied that such charter changes will open the door to corruption, and what Shorr this morning called the rise of "little fiefdoms" all around City Hall. 
[Editorial note:  Over the years, Columbia's old-line establishment has been all too happy to wheel and deal exclusively with the city manager behind closed doors and beyond the confines of public discussion, as acres of emails the Heart Beat has previously published clearly detail.  Talk about little fiefdoms!] 
Former councilman Loveless did not return a call this morning for comment. 

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