Living with Local Democracy

Recalls of elected officials are on the agenda in several Oregon cities this summer as residents in Portland, Baker City, and Grants Pass are gathering signatures to remove the mayor and/or city council members. Recall campaigns are relatively common in Oregon, although this is the first time I remember two concurrent efforts generated by the firing of city managers.

While I am sympathetic to my colleagues who have run afoul of council majorities, I reconciled myself many years ago to the idea that the city council is always right about who should or should not be serving as city manager. I have known many outstanding managers who have been fired by councils that appeared to have poor motives, bad information, or too little experience with public service. Nonetheless, city managers are appointed to serve elected officials, regardless of how skilled or knowledgeable those officials may be. The voters will ultimately decide if a council is effectively serving the community, and city managers should not be a part of the debate, in my opinion.

The International City-County Management Association (ICMA) adopted a Code of Ethics in 1924 that specifically prohibits city managers from involving themselves in political activities. I think this is a bedrock principle of our profession and critical to the success of local democracy. The council-manager form of government is superior to the individuals who serve in it at a given time. I confronted a situation some years ago in another city where a majority of the council wanted me to terminate an employee for no good reason that I could discern. I informed the mayor I could not take the requested action and I was willing to resign if that was the council’s choice. Immediately after that conversation, I was updating my resume and looking at job opportunities in other places. Fortunately, the crisis passed, and all of us kept our jobs; but even though I believed the council majority to be wrong, I would not have supported or participated in a recall or any public campaign to discredit them.

Democracy is not always a polite business and the more local it is the more personal it becomes. National political figures need to develop very strong defenses against the vicious personal attacks that are often directed against them and their families, but that’s hard to do when you are a volunteer public servant in your hometown. City managers should not make that job any harder.

I am sure that some of my colleagues would disagree with my feelings on this subject, and I respect the opposing view. I do not believe, however, that we can claim to support local democracy if we are unwilling to live with the outcomes it produces.