Helping Set a World Record in Greensboro

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Yesterday evening I participated in an interesting event in Greensboro.  It was sponsored by Action Greensboro, a nonprofit organization underwritten by eight local foundations to advance their city.  They have created a speaker series called “Getting Things Done in Greensboro,” and last night’s session was “How Citizens and Local Government Can Work Together.”  I was one of three panel members who responded to a moderator’s questions for about an hour, and then we answered written questions from the audience, emails from people watching a live video stream, and “tweets” from people via Twitter (a first for me).  The other panelists were Harry Jones (Mecklenburg County Manager) and John Alexander (formerly with the Center for Creative Leadership).  Ruth DeHoog with the Political Science Department at UNC-Greensboro was the moderator.

There is growing concern in Greensboro and Guilford County that their local elected officials are not focused enough on planning for the future, and that they are not working effectively with one another or with their professional managers.  There is special concern that their elected officials do not fully appreciate the relationship between their responsibilities and those of the manager.  Guilford County has fired four or five managers in the last five years, and Greensboro recently fired their manager in a way that has caused some people to worry that they will follow the county’s pattern (especially since three former county commissioners have been elected to the city council).

 Last night over 200 private citizens turned out largely to hear about the council-manager form of government, which must be some kind of record.  I’m tempted to call the Guinness Book of World Records.  What does the effective practice of the council-manager form of government look like?  Who should articulate the long-term needs of the city or county, and how can citizens hold them accountable?  What is the appropriate role of the professional staff in innovation, long-term strategic thinking, and advising elected officials?  How can elected officials adequately represent diverse constituencies in their large jurisdictions and still make decisions for the community as a whole?  A number of elected officials were present and a couple commented at the end of the session.

 The turnout and level of interest was impressive, and it will be interesting to see whether the local elected officials think any differently about their roles and responsibilities.  Panel sessions tend toward more superficial answers, and so it is hard to know if you are saying anything worthwhile.  I shamelessly promoted several of our programs aimed at helping elected officials understand their roles and improve their effectiveness.  The session made me wonder if we have a greater role to play in communities where a governing board is dysfunctional and they are not working effectively with the manager.  Hard to imagine many board members (or at least the right ones) volunteering for a workshop on dysfunctional boards.  Could we offer an advanced workshop for managers on working with challenging boards that would not require them to label their own board as dysfunctional?  Some of these difficult board dynamics are inevitable and voters always can administer the ultimate corrective, but I still wonder whether and how we might do more.  (Special thanks to David Ammons for helping me prepare for the session.)

1 thought on “Helping Set a World Record in Greensboro

  1. Hi, Mike,

    I don’t know whether it’s a world record or not—I think that more people are interested in their local government than we might realize. Thanks for taking on the task!

    I’d like to pose what seems to me to be a more overarching question. Is the level of discontent among board members that is shown in their firing of managers not so much a symptom that board members don’t know their “proper” role, or a symptom that council-manager government is not the right form for some of our larger cities? For example, I note that many of the largest cities in the country operate under a strong mayor model, where the mayor hires professional staff (such as managers) and executes council policy, and the council functions more as the legislative branch of government.

    Under this model, if the citizenry doesn’t like how government is being administered (the garbage is piling up, the snow doesn’t get removed), they can put the blame at the feet of one elected official, who can either deal with the appointed managers who work for him/her, or else take his or her chances with the voters. It troubles me that in the mayor-council system it may take defeating a majority of the board—often a very difficult and tumultuous task—to obtain a change in managers.

    I would also note that a city council or board of county commissioners in North Carolina has the perhaps dubious honor of making policy (an executive function), enacting ordinances (a legislative function), and sometimes performing in a quasi-judicial capacity, particularly in the land use area (a judicial function). Having taught boards about the procedures attached to each of these roles, I can attest to the difficulties sometimes experienced because we don’t have “separation of powers” in local government! A strong mayor form of government is more in line with the traditional executive-legislative-judicial model.

    I think that one important reason that council-manager government caught on when Donald Hayman was spreading the word about it years ago is that councils at that time were more homogenous (read, white businessmen) who more readily understood and accepted their role as a board of directors. This was certainly the case in Greensboro when I was growing up there in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Our population in N.C. today is far more diverse, with more women, racial minorities, and recent transplants being elected who perhaps do not see the council’s role in the same way. Perhaps we should be helping councils and boards of commissioners explore what form of government will really work best for them in 2009, rather than assuming that the form (council-manager) is always a given (even if doing so doesn’t win us any popularity contests with managers).

    That is, perhaps we should be encouraging Greensboro’s and Guilford County’s boards and perhaps those in some other cities and counties to consider other forms such as strong mayor as alternatives to council-manager government, rather than saying to them that council-manager is what they have to do and here’s what they have to do to “get it right.” Since we at the School are about espousing good government, we should probably not be promoting one particular form of government such as council-manager or strong mayor as the “right one” in all cases.

    What about holding a forum that brings in some of the more successful big city mayors and council presidents to see what we can learn from them?

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