Democracy and Bureaucracy in Stephenville

Dr. Malcolm Cross

The past two weeks, while writing on the election to change our city charter, I’ve recommended you vote to preserve and increase your freedom as citizens.  To that end, I’ve recommended you vote against reducing the city council’s size, imposing term limits on council members, and lengthening their terms in office.  I’ve also reluctantly favored the adoption of the recall election and enthusiastically endorsed requiring all city council vacancies to be filled by direct popular election.

This week I’m writing on Proposition 9 which, if passed, will amend the city charter to require the adoption of the council-manager form of government.  In one sense, it’s silly to spend time, money, and energy to so amend the charter since decades ago the city council adopted this form of government by ordinance.  Yet the issue is on the ballot, and since approving it will not change our form of government and rejecting it may produce a radical reorganization of government, I recommend that Proposition 9 be adopted.  But I want to emphasize here is that the council-management form of government makes it beneficial to vote on the other propositions as I’ve recommended, not only to preserve the voters’ freedom but to help their elected council members do better work as well.

The council-manager form of government requires the voters to elect a city council to both make policy and hire a professional manager to supervise the permanent city bureaucracy as it implements council policy.    Legally, the city council has the supreme legislative, executive, and political authority, but the city manager and the professional bureaucrats under his supervision possess great power as well—the power of knowledge.

We all understand the power of knowledge.  We give great power to doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants and others who know—or whom we at least hope know—what they’re doing.  We seek their opinions, accept their judgments, and live our lives in accordance with their recommendations. 

Democratically elected officials frequently accord to the manager, department directors, and other bureaucrats similar power and deference.  After all, elected council members are part-time public servants who work for little or no pay, and must therefore spend considerable time working for a living elsewhere (the pay in Stephenville for council members is $200.00 a month, and $400.00 a month for the mayor, but no state employee on the council may receive any payment at all from the city; in my 14 years on the council I earned $33,600 and received nothing).  The city employees, including the city manager and the department directors, work full time for good salaries.  Little wonder that the city council members rely heavily on the manager and his staff for expert advice.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if the manager and the directors are men and women of integrity and ability, as I always considered—and still do consider–Stephenville’s staff to be.  But what if the manager gives council members bad advice whether because he’s either unscrupulous or incompetent?  Will the council members know enough to reject his advice and administrative leadership and replace him with someone of integrity and ability? 

Quite possibly yes—if the council members have had the opportunity to master their own responsibilities as decision makers.  But they need the time—the more the better.  Limiting their terms will limit their time, while reducing the size of the council will mean fewer council members will have to do more work. 

So the voters should reject term limits for council members as well as council size reduction, not only to preserve their own freedom to choose their civic leaders, but to allow them to acquire more time to acquire more knowledge for better decision making as well.  I once served on the staff of one city manager who was perfectly awful yet who was retained, year after year by the city council, because its members were too ignorant to know how bad he was.  And I also once served on the staff of a city manager who was perfectly good but who was constantly harassed by a city council which did not understand how good he was.  I’ve always thought that in Stephenville, with a nine-person council whose members the voters could either retain or reject, we had the wisdom to hire good managers and staff, the wisdom to debate and analyze their advice effectively, and the wisdom to work usually in cooperation to best serve the citizens of Stephenville.  We should continue to maintain this record by maintaining the size of the city council and rejecting term limits. 

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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