Guest view: Who really runs the city?
July 4, 2009
I read with amusement the most recent controversy sparked by City Council members Jerry Birdwell and Bill Crawford over the city manager, Dave Jinkens. Either they do not understand how general law cities operate or they are not doing their jobs.
In California, a city may incorporate under the laws of the state, as South Lake Tahoe did in 1965. Those “general” laws govern how the city operates and give it defined powers. Unlike such cities as San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, and a number of other communities that are charter cities and have directly elected mayors, who actually run the city, a general law city is run by the city manager. He or she hires and fires everyone with the exception of him or herself and the city attorney.
The job of the council members, who are elected, is to make policy. And believe me, policy is very different from the day-to-day operations let alone the power vested in each department head. Department heads report to the city manager not the council; it easy for things to get lost or end up on the bottom of the pile unless you have an effective city manager. A council member who deals directly with a department head, or any employee for that matter, is out of line and is in effect micro-managing, and is well beyond their authority.
For the council to set a policy, it must be done by a majority in a public meeting. Our city has a policy, which I opposed, that requires a consensus of the council before an issue can even be considered in public. It is my view that any member should be able to bring forth an issue. If the majority does not like it, so be it, but the public at least knows where the council stands.
There have been many issues that have been proposed that never see the light of day because others on the council do not want the public to see that they are for, or in most cases against, an issue, so the denial of consensus keeps it off the agenda and hidden from public exposure. With a directly elected mayor you are voting for the issues that person stands for, and you can reasonably expect their policies to be carried out. In a general law city no one council person can tell anyone what to do, only by a majority vote, in our case three, can the council give a general direction or a policy statement. That policy then is left to the city manager, first to translate then to bring to action.
If the council has declared a policy, how do they see that it is carried out to the letter of their intention? By meeting on a regular basis with the city manager, to discuss, ask questions and monitor areas of their interest. To do this the member has to do more than attend a meeting twice a month; they have to engage. It is my experience, if Birdwell and Crawford are upset about the city manager’s execution of their alleged policy, it is because they never bothered to ask. You have your issues, your ideas, you need to watch over them not get upset later when it does not turn out as you imagined.
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I have worked with Dave Jinkens for seven years, three as a planning commissioner and four as council member. He works hard and takes his job seriously. We did not agree on every issue – after all he works for five people so it’s not surprising that Dave might be in the middle sometimes. But, after all, we are adults and need to understand that you get your programs moved forward by communication, facts and hard work, not complaints. Dave enjoys wide respect from his fellow city managers and has served our city well.
I would ask, did Birdwell and Crawford ever meet with Dave on their issue? I know they did not or they would have solved their own problem not made him the bad guy.
– Ted Long is a South Lake Tahoe resident and a former City Council member.
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