Demolishing the ‘professional manager’ argument against strong-mayor

The State is pulling out all the stops on strong-mayor to the point that Cindi is joining Warren in writing about it.

Of course, it’s not much of a stretch, since Cindi’s been writing about similar issues on the state level for decades now. In fact, while a lot of people remember that the “Power Failure” series pointed to a Cabinet form of government on the state level, there were two entire installments (each of them several full pages long, back when a newspaper page was a lot of space) devoted to our weak, ineffectual, fragmented local governing arrangements in South Carolina.

In her column, Cindi demolishes the anti- argument that the current system gives us “a professional manager,” instead of a politician. She does this in a most brutal fashion, by citing Columbia’s actual experiences with “professional managers.”

Beyond that, she points out that in government, unlike in the corporate world, the principle of representative democracy is crucial. “A professional instead of a politician” sounds good to people who don’t stop and think about the difference between business and government. Imagine, for a moment, Jack Nicholson in “The Departed,” explaining emphatically to the Chinese gangsters how we do things “in this country.”

In this country, “politics” is not, contrary to popular belief, a bad word. It’s the way government plugs itself in to its only legitimate power source, the people. Politics is the legitimate human interaction between voters and the elected, between different elected people, and among voters themselves. It is the one legitimate form of decision-making in the American system of governance.

Government in America is not a clockwork orange. It’s not a wind-up toy, that works all by itself as long as someone has an instruction manual. It requires that actual political decisions be made by humans, and that those decisions are acted up in an effective and accountable manner.

To quote from Cindi’s column:

INTERSPERSED with their dire warnings of corruption and patronage and bossism, the opponents of putting the mayor in charge of Columbia’s government like to talk nobly of the professionalism of the current system.

It’s right there on the yard signs: “Professional Manager, Not a Politician.”…

If you value expertise and professionalism as I do, that can sound alluring.

Until you see how it actually works.

Until a city hires someone with so little experience that it had to reduce its job requirements in the middle of the search process in order to even consider her. Until a city hires someone it’s willing to reduce its job requirements for because of what can be seen only as political reasons.

Teresa Wilson had been an assistant city manager just 18 months when the Columbia City Council named her city manager in January. She had worked for the city less than six years, and most of her work there and elsewhere was in government relations, which is a fancy term for lobbyist.

Her predecessor, Steve Gantt, had a resume closer to what the professional-manager advocates advocate, but even he had been an assistant manager just seven years, and had worked before that in private construction.

Before him we had Charles Austin, who may have been a fine police chief but was Peter Principled into the city manager job by council members who needed to make a quick decision and thought his popularity could serve to their political advantage. He actually did a better job than should have been expected, but in the end it was clear that this wasn’t the sort of job he was trained to do.

On paper, Leona Plaugh was precisely what the professionalism advocates had in mind. But she was forced out after just 18 months in the wake of a series of heavy-handed moves that included an attempt to muzzle City Council members who were criticizing her…

Ms. Plaugh, now a member of the City Council and one of the most vocal opponents of strong mayor, opposed hiring Ms. Wilson, saying she wasn’t experienced enough for the job. And yet, there she is…

To believe in the “professional manager” myth, you have to “set aside what we know about the Columbia City Council’s track record with city managers.”

But even if all the “professional managers” were ideal,, government should not be run by an unelected executive.

I urge you to go read the whole column.

12 thoughts on “Demolishing the ‘professional manager’ argument against strong-mayor

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    I’m going to quibble with two points in the portion of Cindi’s column that I quoted. Steve Gantt did to a good job, and I wouldn’t want to take away from that at all — even if his resume does call into question the importance of having a career professional in the job.

    Also, I want to stick up for Leona Plaugh. I think the meltdown between her and council was more council’s fault. But either way, it illustrates the dysfunction inherent in the council-manager system.

    It’s not just about bad managers. It’s about a bad system, whether the managers are good or not.

  2. William

    The question related to the city manager position is will the city dumb down the qualifications for the Chief of Police so that Santiago will meet the qualifications? Because as of right now he does not meet the minimum qualifications for the position. The city did it for the city manager position, I won’t be surprised if they do it for the Chief of Police position.

  3. Phillip

    Why has the city manager system worked so well for Charlotte? Lack of the “strong mayor” system has hardly seem to have hurt that city over the past half-century.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I am by no means an expert on how Charlotte operates, but from afar, it has always seemed to have business leadership of the “can-do” variety — sort of like Greenville, on a bigger scale. People like fellow Bennettsville boy Hugh McColl

        1. barry

          They have manager- council form of government.

          Their city manager is from Columbia- and was deputy city manager before becoming city manager. He’s worked for the city for almost 14 years. (Their previous city manager resigned in 2010 after 6 years on the job. He was credited with driving private investment to downtown)

          They also have Knox White as mayor- a mayor who has had a strong vision for a long time- and great business community support. (But he’s on record as saying a city manager job is tough because they have to please all the council members- even in Greenville).

          As a result, downtown Greenville, SC is FANTASTIC and a great place to visit, eat, see concerts, and stay overnight. A quick walk around or drive any day around lunch and you will see hundreds and hundreds of people eating lunch, shopping, and going about their business.

          I disagree that a strong mayor system is going to solve any of our problems. But the status quo isn’t going to solve any of our problems either. It’s about the quality of people in the positions than the form of government- at least in Columbia’s case.

  4. Doug Ross

    Charlotte doesn’t have to deal with a State House full of egocentric grifters or a college the size of USC that seems to have a stranglehold on any activity that occurs inside the city limits.

    Columbia is unique. A hodgepodge of special interests, each looking for its own cut of other people’s money.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      And a strong mayor will make it that much easier for one-stop influence of the sort only money can buy

      1. barry

        money can influence council members too

        and of course Columbia council members have a long habit of trying to run portions of city government themselves

  5. C J Watson

    It really doesn’t matter if the city of Columbia (or any city) has a strong mayor or a professional city manager as long the city council does its job. City council sets the policy, the mayor or manager runs the city IAW the policy.

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