St. Joseph’s form of city government works best when a certain tension exists between the elected council and the appointed manager.
This “council-manager” system, which voters approved in the 1980s under the current City Charter, is designed to protect us from the worst elements of both. Elected council members can be reckless or unrealistic in pursuing a mandate for change. A city manager can display a level of caution and unimaginative leadership that devolves into bureaucratic inertia.
It isn’t always pretty, but the council should keep an ear to the public’s wishes and prompt the manager to pursue a bold course, while the manager tempers the crazier ideas and makes a back-of-the-envelope concept work in the real world of complexities.
But what if it really, really isn’t pretty?
St. Joseph has encountered tension between its council and manager in the past. A recent example would be the tumultuous tenure of Mayor Ken Shearin and City Manager Vince Capell.
Now, St. Joseph citizens have to wonder if our city is entering a new level of rancor and dysfunction between the elected council and the professional manager hired to work as a chief administrator.
City Manager Bruce Woody, who has held the position since 2011, survived a closed vote last week on a motion to suspend him without pay. After the measure failed 5-3, councilman Brian Myers spoke vaguely of “leadership issues” among city staff. Myers, Madison Davis and Brenda Blessing were in the minority voting to suspend.
Details are unknown, though there is talk about disagreement over budget matters, which could mean anything from city employee raises to sewer bills to the way council members were caught off guard about a budget deficit.
Myers said the Sunshine Law prevents him from discussing what happened in the meeting, but we believe that’s a misreading of the law. The state’s open records law says the city and its elected leaders are not obligated to disclose details of the discussion with Woody — we acknowledge that — but they are not prevented from doing so.
They can, if they wish to. We believe they should.
This is not a discussion on whether to suspend a mid-level accountant whose lunch break went a little over the limit. This is the future of a chief executive who makes six figures and oversees a $178 million budget and more than 600 employees.
If Myers and other council members have a specific vision for how the city should be administered and how a change of course would benefit its citizens, they should put their cards on the table and have an open discussion about the pros and the cons.
On an issue this important, a cloak of secrecy makes it look more like a putsch than a personnel change, adding to everything that’s wrong at City Hall.