Sunday, February 28, 2010

CONTROVERSIAL ORDINANCE: Tackles city manager seating

COLUMBIA, 2/28/10  (Beat Byte) -- A "heated discussion" among Columbia City Council members about whether to seat city manager Bill Watkins (left, Maneater photo) or the Mayor at the center of the council's semi-circular meeting table -- where Watkins and other city managers have traditionally positioned themselves -- has become Council Bill R50-10, which lets the Mayor make the decision.
Questions about changing the long-standing seating arrangement occurred after council members touring the new council chambers spotted name placards once again placing Mr. Watkins at the center of the new council table, multiple sources tell the Heart Beat. 
similar discussion last year saw Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Chris Belcher remove himself from the center school board table seat.
"The superintendent’s central position at the legislative table raises an important question:  Is the school board a step up in the chain of command, in charge of the superintendent, or not?" wrote Columbia resident Ken Green in an October 2008 Columbia Daily Tribune editorial.   Green noted the strong psychological impact of placing a non-voting, paid chief executive in the center of an all-volunteer legislative body, precisely the same situation that faces the Columbia City Council. 
School board member Ines Segert agreed:  Where the superintendent sits does influence meetings, the Tribune reported.  "It’s important that board members lead the discussion," she explained.  After an informal poll of school board members concurred, school board president Jan Mees replaced the superintendent at the center of the legislative table during Dr. Belcher's first meeting in August. 
Fretting about a power-sharing arrangement that has proven both lopsided and embarassing over the past year, Columbia City Council members eager to see the same arrangement started a similar discussion. 
Council members suggested allowing the Mayor to decide the seating arrangement during an informal gathering at the new city hall building when a full quorum was allegedly present, but not allowed to decide policy for Sunshine Law requirements.  
The discussion apparently heated up, sources say, when it became clear Mr. Watkins would not move from the center of the table voluntarily.   Superintendent Belcher said his seating "was not an issue" and moved aside without a formal board policy vote. 
To formalize the Mayor's role in making the decision, Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala introduced the idea at the Council's Feb. 15 meeting.  It now appears on the Monday, March 1 council meeting agenda under "New Business."  


  1. Are you kidding me?

  2. This has long been a pet peeve of mine. To have NON-elected persons sitting at the table with ELECTED City Council members gives the
    impression that the City Manager (Bill) and Legal Beagle (Fred) have the same status as City Council members, to say nothing of the fact that the City Manager is seated front and center.

    This gives absolutely the wrong impression.

    The City Manager serves at the pleasure of the Council. The Legal Beagle serves at the pleasure of the City Manager. Both or either of these could give advice or a summary of a pending bill (and the staff recommendations) just as easily at a side table. The ONLY non-elected person to sit with the Council should be the Clerk, because that person
    has to call the roll or register each vote...

    Follow the example of the School Board.

    I will confirm that I sent this email.

  3. Mike,

    Thanks for the update of the seating issue in your online journal.

  4. Mike - thanks for reporting this. In my multi-jurisdictional experience, this is the first time I've seen the CM seated amid the elected officials.

    It does present a picture of all having equal weight. But that's not how it is, right? The CM serves "at the pleasure of council" and therefore does not have equal weight to the council members.

    From the ICMA website:

    The appointed manager or administrator is charged with carrying out the policies established by the elected officials and with delivering public services efficiently, effectively, and equitably. Elected officials, in turn, have more time to concentrate on creating a vision for the community’s future.
    Day-to-day operations are managed by a professional who is educated and trained in current city and town management practices, state and federal laws and mandates, and cost-effective service delivery techniques.


    A most beloved CM in my past work experience not only sat at the extreme left of council, but one level down from council. Made a pretty dramatic impression to the public and to staff.