Since Columbia's increasingly indecisive, divided city council is struggling (once again) to come up with an evaluation of City Manager Charles Austin — I believe the council is supposed to try to get back to it today — we thought we'd help by offering our own on today's editorial page:
should earn Austin
a failing grade
COLUMBIA CITY Council is taking its time evaluating city manager Charles Austin, and there’s no telling what conclusion the divided body might reach.
But as we consider the poor management of two key departments over the past couple of years, the picture is not good.
Mr. Austin has done good things since being hired in 2003. With city administration in turmoil at the time, he restored a measure of public confidence and boosted employee morale. He took charge, streamlined meetings, removed small items from the council’s plate and attempted, unfortunately unsuccessfully, to stop council from meddling in daily operations.
We had high hopes that Mr. Austin would draw on his successful 11-year stint as police chief and grow into the job of city manager. That hasn’t happened. He’s faced considerable challenges as the police department fell into disarray and the finance department proved dysfunctional and unaccountable.
At one point, the once well-respected police department went three years without a chief, a position Mr. Austin appoints. Once a chief, Dean Crisp, was hired, he lasted three years before abruptly retiring. The department’s reputation took a big hit when officers were said to be cheating on an online recertification test. Mr. Crisp disciplined 21 officers by suspending most of them for two to five days, demoting several and putting all on probation. After Mr. Crisp’s retirement, interim Chief Harold Reaves reversed the suspensions. Inexplicably, Mr. Austin, who had signed off on Mr. Crisp’s decision, went along with Mr. Reaves’ reversal.
In addition, a report last March by a five-member citizens panel said the department lacks adequate manpower and equipment and does a poor job of recruiting, training and retaining officers.
The city has had worse problems in the finance department, which fell two years behind in closing its books and getting necessary audits. The council had to build budgets without knowing what the city had taken in or spent the previous year. The capital city has had to call on outside consultants and auditors as well as the S.C. Municipal Association for help. One audit showed the city lacked some internal controls to keep track of its money, failed to follow some of its own procedures and didn’t report financial information in a timely and accurate manner.
Mr. Austin is trying to turn things around. He’s hired a permanent police chief, and the council has approved 14 new officers and a pay and retention plan. He has reconfigured the finance department, hired new staff and begun implementing new procedures. A search is under way for a finance director.
But each forward step is matched by revelations of general sloppiness punctuated by outrageous blunders. Last week, we learned the city paid some bills at least twice for at least four years, didn’t regularly reconcile bank statements and lost millions due to poor investment decisions.
Mr. Austin had never been a city manager when he took the position, and this often shows. Meanwhile, the City Council is utterly ineffective in holding him accountable. Unfortunately, the buck stops nowhere in the city’s council-manager form of government, with responsibility divided among the unelected manager, the weak mayor and the six other council members, four of whom represent single-member districts.
But the fact is the city is in a mess, and it’s Mr. Austin whose evaluation is under discussion. He deserves a failing grade.
If I recall correctly, the last time around — in late 2007 — the council had trouble coming up with a written evaluation, and when it did, it was hand-written on a legal pad. Here's hoping for something a little more professional this time. But we're not holding our breath. Seven bosses with separate agendas can't hold one employee accountable, just as voters have no one to hold accountable, because they merely elect the seven (and of course, no one voter gets to vote for more than a minority of the seven). The structure of city government is made for this kind of confusion.