Mayor compares top spots

Friday, February 3, 2012

BEUREKA SPRINGS --On Valentine's Day, Eureka Springs voters will decide whether to adopt the city administrator form of government to replace its traditional mayor-council system. Finance Director Lonnie Clark said the city set aside $5,000 in its budget to pay for the election.

If residents vote for the change, the mayor and aldermen elected next November would hire a professional city administrator to handle the business duties of the city. This would, in theory, allow the mayor and council to provide direction for the city through passing ordinances and resolutions.

This alternative to the mayor-council system has been tried worldwide for almost a century now. According to Mayraj Fahim, a worldwide city advisor, the use of a professional administrator reflects changing intricacies incumbent upon local governments. She said it is more a matter of local governments adapting to changing times and increased pressures than a failure on anyone's part.

According to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), 53 percent of cities in the United States with a population of 5,000 or less, many of them in Texas and California, have chosen the city administrator form of government. A joint study by Texas A&M University and Auburn University found that during the 1980s through the early 1990s, city-manager cities "substantially outperformed mayor-council cities on key dimensions," in particular, the cost of audits, especially in smaller towns.

However, some cities tried the mayor-administrator system but changed back to the strong mayor system. Camden, Arkansas (population 11,600), first adopted the city administrator form of government in 1959.

Chris Claybaker, current mayor of Camden, lived there then and he said he later wrote his senior paper as a student of Public Administration at the University of Texas at Arlington on the advantages of the city manager system. After graduation, he returned to Camden, then moved away with his work for awhile, and when he returned, felt the city had become stagnant.

Apparently, he was not the only one who noticed because voters in 1995 voted to return to the mayor-council system, and voted in Claybaker as the first mayor after the return. He has been the mayor ever since.

Claybaker said he saw two kinds of persons serve as the city manager. One was the up-and-coming person full of enthusiasm and energy who was generally underpaid and who typically moved on to greener pastures. He said it is difficult for small towns to pay adequately for the position.

The other kind was the lifelong city administrator who wanted a job to retire in. Claybaker said it was an administrator of the second kind who settled into the position in Camden, and began closing his doors to the public after a point. The council didn't hold his feet to the fire and the citizens were not being served.

Claybaker feels now, though he admits being biased because he is a mayor, that the mayor-council form of government is more responsive to the people. He and the council are forced to respond if they want to be re-elected.

He pointed out that often a mayor can be popular with the people but not a good manager of the city's business, and to get re-elected, "you've got to stand on what you've done. A good mayor must be a good administrator, which means listening and managing, but also have vision."

He said when he became mayor in 1995, department heads were hiding behind inertia of not-doing rather than striving to remove obstacles. He felt they had been buffered by the city manager. He realized, "If I'm going to get re-elected, I need to figure out a way to get things done." He had to introduce a different mind set to his city hall.

His example points out that the mayor and council in Camden were also culpable for the stagnation, because they are supposed to be policymakers and leaders, and own the results.

Those who have studied the two forms of government have observed that problems crop up when duties are not clearly defined.

Claybaker pointed out that he knows some city managers who do a terrific job: Lance Hudnell has been successful in Hot Springs, and Catherine Cook has been the city manager in Hope, Ark., since 1995. He said they are dynamic and effective because they are invested in their communities.

Eureka Springs Mayor Morris Pate said he feels the current system works. He added that the residents need to stay involved, but he commented, "The system has worked for a long, long time and I don't know why we need to change it."

Dani Joy, former mayor of Eureka Springs, said voters can choose whichever form of government they want, but "it does not matter if you don't have good people in the seats." She said she is on the fence as to how she will vote on Feb. 14.

Joy said she sees good points on both sides of the issue, but what matters most to her is for citizens to stop being apathetic. Even when government is going well, she feels residents should stay active as opposed to bystanding during the good times and getting reactionary when things go wrong.

Beverly Blankenship, chairwoman of the Planning Commission, also sees high points in arguments pro and con, but she promised, "No matter what happens I will still be involved in trying to get things done for our city."

Police Chief Earl Hyatt said the Constitution set up a balance of power, and he likes it that way. "What we have now works the best, and we don't need to change it."

Interested observer Michelle Payton captured very simply another sentiment going around about the election: "Considering the baloney that goes on in this town, it might be a good idea. Change can be very good."

The idea of a city manager or city administrator came from a desire to get rid of graft and cronyism in early twentieth-century politics. Claybaker pointed out that it sounds like the perfect idea -- hiring a trained professional to run the business of the city. But as Bryan Day, assistant city manager of Little Rock, told voters in Eureka Springs, "For the system to work, you need a strong mayor and a strong council that can work together."The system might make a difference, but it appears that it is more than the system. It comes down to who is sitting in the seats and whether well-informed residents are watching.

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