The Professional City

I have been calling for a discussion on changing Cedar Falls' archaic city structure since my 2009 campaign.  While I have not been Quimby.GIFsuccessful in bringing the issue to a head, we finally take on the discussion in earnest in our May 31th Council Committee meeting (the meeting where the real work gets done).  Why?  I would love to say the impetus was reason and leadership.  But I will take reality for what it is - the pending financial crisis has forced the city to explore more efficient and effective forms in the name of cost savings.  Sometimes progress requires a crisis!!  I will be covering the facts and the issues as the conversation progresses.

The following was a published letter from September 2011.  It is unedited since that time.

Implementing the Last Step in the Professional City

The Cedar Falls city council needs to begin the conversation surrounding our mayor/council form of government.  In our current form, the mayor is both the political figure head and the chief administrator of the city.  The position is full-time and salaried with benefits that exceed most peer mayors and public servants.  The duties of the Cedar Falls mayor are loosely defined and in most cases, delegated to professional staff, as they should be.

The alternative form of government under study by several council members is called a council/manager form (or similarly, council/administrator).  In this form, the mayor remains the figure head and retains limited administrative duties while day-to-day operations are allocated to professional city staff..

When Cedar Falls converted to a full-time mayor in the 1970s, the complexities of government were relatively simple by today’s comparison.  Not only was the city smaller, there was a large supporting bureaucracy.  Today, the city deals with a completely different set of regulatory, financial, economic, and legal circumstances which are expertly managed by our professional staff.  Former Mayor Doug Sharp deserves credit for ushering in the first wave of government reform.  Under his leadership, the city greatly improved operating efficiencies by streamlining numerous, departments into four organizationally aligned departments managed by professional directors.

While the departments were reorganized, few changes occurred in the mayor’s office.  Today, only 4 out of 947 cities in Iowa have the mayor/council structure as we do.  However, with Mayor Sharp’s reorganization, we effectively run a council/manager form of city government.  Our departmental organization, lead by capable directors, provides efficient and effective city services that meets the expectations of most city stakeholders. . 

There are few cities in the US that operate with a full-time mayor as CEO.  Normally, these cities are highly politicized and not at the top of their peer group.  An elected, mayor-CEO requires that candidates be willing to submit their income and livelihood to the whim of the voting box.  This fact alone severely limits the potential candidate pool to mostly retired, underemployed, or independently wealthy individuals.  Given the political nature, incumbent, career mayors must straddle a careful line of political and administrative efficacy.  Every administrative decision needs to be balanced by political implications that can encumber effective government processes.  Complicating matters further, this isn’t a position with abundant training options to develop mayoral qualities.  Few, if any, universities offer a degree in full-time mayoralship.  In the case of the council/manager form of government, the city manager and staff remain accountable to the city council and mayor.

So how does Cedar Falls survive?  It is no news flash that Cedar Falls already has a reasonably effective council/manager form.  Maybe we’ve held onto the full-time mayor legacy out of nostalgia, no sense of urgency to become more efficient, or because we’ve indoctrinated a career mayor that does good enough.  Or maybe it is because daily operations and planning are expertly administered by a tremendously capable set of directors where planning and visioning are delegated to staff, commissions, boards, task forces, surveys, and consultants.  Or maybe it is because this city has tremendous underlying assets like our utilities, schools, University, people, culture, and recreational opportunities.

While most cities have recognized the need for professional management and the de-politicalization of the chief administrator position, Cedar Falls hasn’t reached a crisis to trigger the discussion.  Few people, elected officials, bureaucrats or otherwise, will advocate eliminating their own job, but this would be the ultimate manifestation governmental efficiency which we, as a city, strive to achieve. 

Meanwhile, the full-time mayor comes at a significant expense.  The position earns $81,540 in salary, receives $27,205 in benefits including an attractive public pension, health care, and life insurance.  In addition, the position enjoys fringe benefits in the form of mileage reimbursement, mobile phone, secretary, recreation benefits, sick leave, comp time and personal day accruals.  Vacation is an open, unspecified benefit.  In total, the office costs taxpayers slightly less than $200,000 per year.

I’m calling for a moment of leadership where we can engage in a meaningful discussion about our city’s form of government followed by thoughtful ordinance change in the two to four years.  There are many more dramatic government transformations occurring around the world.  A council/manager would be an evolutionary step in Cedar Falls for more effective, efficient local governance.

Nick Taiber

Cedar Falls Councilman at Large


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