Friday, July 22, 2011

Council staff

Since the first council meeting after the passage of the new charter, the council has been working to formalize the structure of this new government. And since that meeting, the council has contemplated having some form of council staff. The council is currently considering two highly qualified candidates and looks forward to the hiring of one of them.

Why does the council need a staff?
The legislative branch of any government has needs that differ from those of the executive. While the mayor has working relationships with many of the knowledge experts in the government, the councilmembers often need a guide to help them navigate the bureaucracy and research issues. The council needs a professional who will provide clear, unbiased advice on issues before the council, to serve as a sounding board for councilmembers as they contemplate an issue. The council also needs assistance in preparing agendas, particularly handling requests for council presentations and facilitating the appearance of experts for council deliberations.

These are all tasks that were done under the previous government and still need to be done under the new charter. Without someone to perform these functions, the council cannot adequately fulfill its duties under the charter. Council staff is a necessary element of good governance.

Is it legal under our charter?
Our charter gives the mayor the power to appoint, discipline, and remove all officers and employees. However, nowhere in the charter is there a prohibition of the council having dedicated personnel. Early in his tenure, even, Mayor Hayward directed the council that Mr. Coby would continue to be a resource for the council. And the charter does not forbid the mayor from respecting the wishes of the council.

True, the council can not send an offer letter, the council can’t sign paychecks. But the mayor can do those things on behalf of the council in the best interest of this city and sound governance.

Do other cities with a mayor-council government have council staff?
Yes. Hialeah has multiple council aides, as well as a relationship with the clerk. Hialeah does not expressly give the mayor the powers to appoint all officers, but it does not give the council the power to supervise any departments.

Orlando has an assistant for each council member, and their charter explicitly gives the power to have subordinates. In Orlando these assistants function much like the assistants for the Escambia County Commission and are paid in a similar range.

The council in St. Petersburg has one administrator and three assistants, but the charter prohibits the council from requesting the appointment of anyone.

Each of these cities has found a way to provide the necessary support to their councils. Each has a different format, and the one this council contemplates is different, too. But if they have found a way to make it work, so can we.

Can we afford it?
During the budget deliberations for the 2011 budget, before the first mayor under the new charter was elected, the then-council provided funding for the mayor’s staff as well as the council staff. The budget was balanced, but the funds for this council staff have not yet been expended. There are sufficient funds in the budget to hire candidates of the caliber the council considered during their recent workshop.

The mayor and city council are all dedicated to providing a strong city and want to ensure that decisions are made with adequate consideration. The council has spoken multiple times about the need for a staff person and has worked diligently toward the hiring of such a staff, including much debate and discussion since the mayor’s swearing in. This council staff is an essential element of good government, which is in the best interest of all the citizens of Pensacola.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Creating Jobs or Rearranging the Deck Chairs?

the issue: number of city council seats

Over the course of a year, a committee set about the complex task of designing a new charter for the City of Pensacola. Among the issues which they discussed was the number of City Council members and the existence of at-large council seats. After considerable deliberation, they decided to leave the existing structure as it was.

Why did the charter commission keep the existing council structure?

People in our community are passionate about voting for those who represent them. And they should be. When a previous city-county charter commission proposed changing from elected to appointed constitutional officers, that issue was attributed to the failure of the entire initiative. If we were to change from the current system of seven district representatives and two at-large representatives on council, the voters of Pensacola would lose considerable control over their city government.

Under the current system, every voter casts four votes. One for the mayor, one for their district representative, and two for at-large council members. That means they have four out of ten city officials directly accountable to them. Why would the voters want to reduce their voice on the city council by two-thirds? But more important than how many votes they cast on election day, the current system increases the chances that their perspectives will be voiced during council deliberations.

The Wisdom of Crowds.

Each individual council member has a different life experience, different passions, diverse knowledge. Each asks different questions helping shape a better final decision that considers many points of view.

The more people participating in the debate, the more likely all angles of an issue will be considered and the more likely the final product will be better than any one person could have created.

Consider juries, which are typically twelve people, regardless of the size of the community. In decisions about jury size, the Supreme Court has stated that juries should be “large enough to promote group deliberations”. It is not a question of the size of the community, but rather a question of the size of the group which determines whether a sound decision will be reached.

But what about the costs?

Council members are currently paid $14,000 a year. In the scale of the city’s budget, each additional council member’s salary is a drop in the bucket. If more members provide better decision making on a $200 million budget, that $14,000 is worth it.

As we work under the new charter, we continue to have questions on implementation. This is not one of them. The commission made a clear decision on this, and we should spend our energies discussing more pressing issues.

Our community faces serious challenges as well as many opportunities to shape our destiny. We should not be distracted by how many seats are on the council, when the people of this community are more concerned about how many good jobs we can create. We have many, many important matters before us; we should not be worried with rearranging the deck chairs.