EUREKA SPRINGS -- At least 30 residents of Eureka Springs showed up Tuesday night for a seminar at the auditorium on the council-manager form of government. Alderman James DeVito introduced two speakers, Andy McCowan, career city manager with more than 40 years' experience, and Bryan Day, currently assistant city manager of Little Rock.
Day explained that the council-manager form of government was born a hundred years ago out of turn-of-the-century politics. Cities were looking for a better way, and they wanted a professional, not a politician, to run the business of their cities. Since this style has developed, Day said it has been tried successfully all over the world. He said it is growing in popularity across the United States in small towns and cities as large as Phoenix.
In this system, the city hires someone with professional management experience to run the business of the city but separates him or her from politics.
"For this system to work, you must have a strong mayor and a strong council that works together," Day said.
The manager develops the budget and focuses on accomplishing goals of the city, but the council and mayor remain the policymakers. The manager continues to work on goals regardless of the election schedule, so the manager's view can be more long-term.
Day pointed out that seven of the 10 cities honored with the All-American City Award in 2006 operated with city managers.
McCowan said there are more than 3,000 city managers in the United States today. He told the audience that more than 200 towns and cities in Texas have a city manager, and many of them are small towns, some smaller than Eureka Springs. He also mentioned that the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA) administers a strict code of ethics which stipulates that a manager is expected to remain at a job for at least two years. If a manager remains at two consecutive jobs for less than two years, that person will be subject to an ethical review.
Day and McCowan answered questions from the audience for more than an hour:
Q: How can Eureka Springs justify the expense of hiring a city manager?
Day: A good administrator should generate cost savings and additional revenue. Just through good business practices and efficiency measures, a city manager can be cost effective in the first year. Council should have this conversation with prospective candidates.
McCowan: I was the first city manager of a city in Missouri with a large deficit and low-paid employees. We worked on getting a clean audit, and in time we turned the situation around.
Q: What would a change to this form of government look like for those in government now?
DeVito: First the city would be reapportioned into four wards. Then elections would be set up, probably in November. The new government would select the city manager.
Day: The process will take time to unfold. The new council won't take office until next year, so there is time to prepare.
Q: Why can't we do without wards?
Day: Arkansas does not require ward representation, but the trend across the country is moving away from at-large candidates because some groups become underrepresented. Little Rock has seven wards and three at-large seats and is looking to do away with its at-large seats.
Q: Eureka Springs is very disparate, and some on council like to stall and stall and stall. Who would vet the candidates?
McCowan: Selection is critical and you must vet thoroughly so you get what you want. It is up to your city to set up a good process. For example, would you recruit on a national level? There are different processes for hiring. Some cities put the final group of candidates before a group of citizens to answer questions. Some cities hire headhunter firms, but at considerable expense. What is important for the council is the feeling you can work with a person.
Day: You also have ICMA to help you recruit.
Q: What is the smallest city by population and by revenue to have chosen a city manager?
Day: I don't know for sure, but lots of small towns use professional managers, and for sure some smaller than Eureka Springs.
Q: Isn't it typical for small towns in Arkansas to change managers often?
Day: In many small towns, the manager outlasts several councils and mayors. It is their job to make the mayor and council look good.
McCowan: The continuity is important. I was manager of a town in Colorado that recalled the mayor and half the council, but we were able to provide continuity. And we persevered through other turnovers as well.
Day: And I am not aware of a regular turnover of positions in Arkansas.
Q: Why would anyone want to apply for the job here, considering our history?
Day: Anyone who applies here would know the possibilities, and a person would be intrigued by the challenge. You have an attractive, wonderful town where folks want to live. You might attract a professional manager who has ties to Arkansas and wants to move back.
McCowan: The key is how you handle the recruitment. This is a great town in a wonderful, attractive part of the country. You will get good prospective candidates if you choose to go this way.
Day: ICMA can help with the recruitment.
Q: What are the upfront costs of hiring someone before they can save us any money?
McCowan: Costs are negotiated.
Q: What salary might Eureka Springs expect to pay?
DeVito: The low end is $4,500, but we have the Eureka factor working for us.
Day: Arkansas does not pay well, so you should expect $50,000 -- $70,000. The city manager in Hope makes in the fifties and she has been there for 10 years or so. And I feel confident you should get some good candidates.
McCowan: Be sure to get someone with public sector experience, and if possible someone experienced with the council-manager setup.
DeVito summed up the advantages of this change in government by mentioning that some issues are ward-specific and deserve representation. Also the new form of government would free up the mayor to provide a vision for the city, not worry about street repair, and build bridges with other communities for everyone's mutual benefit.
Eureka Springs voters will make a decision on the new form of government in a Feb. 14 special election.