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Why don’t Village managers last?

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This is the first in a two-part series of articles on local governmental bodies.

When Village Manager Laura Curliss leaves her position at the end of the month, she will have governed for 20 months, including six months as interim manager, the shortest tenure for a full-time manager in Yellow Springs’ 61-year history of village managers.

Curliss is also the fourth manager who has governed the vilage since 2000. The last four full-time managers have stayed here an average of just 3.25 years, less than half the national average for city managers.

What is the cause of high manager turnover here? Could the challenge of how the council-manager form of government is structured locally and how local leaders interpret their roles be a cause? Or could it largely be the clash of leadership styles between Council and manager, or lack of understanding of local values by out-of-town managers? Curliss, along with current and former Council members and Village managers, was interviewed this week to find out.

The council-manager form of government, used in some 40 percent of towns with 2,500 or more people, was instituted in Yellow Springs in 1952 to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of local government. Under the form, an elected council makes policy, while an appointed manager implements policy.

Curliss said that the way the roles are spelled out in the charter is somewhat confusing, though the basic council-manager form of government works here.

“I think a council-manager government is a good form of government in Yellow Springs,” Curliss said. “But it takes respect for each role and respect for the separation of powers.”

Council president Judith Hempfling agreed that council-manager is best, but said that the strength of Village Council and the town’s high level of civic engagement can be difficult for new managers, especially those unfamiliar with the community.

“In other communities, Council just takes the advice of their city manager,” Hempfling said. “In ours we all have an opinion, so it takes a different mindset to work well together.”

Council member Rick Walkey said that Curliss was ambitious in tackling idle projects, and that style may not have been the best fit for the village. But Walkey maintained that the Village’s council-manager form of government is sound, and said that he believes a mayor would politicize what should be a nonpartisan managerial role.

Meanwhile, Council member Gerry Simms and Curliss both said a committee structure within the council-manager form of government might be more effective in governing Yellow Springs, where citizen involvement and robust communication are prized.

“Council is going to have to look inside and say, ‘Are we giving our managers the support that they need to function?’” Simms said.

What is the history of the Village’s form of government, how is it defined in the charter, and how do current and former leaders interpret it? And what, if anything, should be done to address the high turnover at the Village manager position?

History of council-manager form
An American invention, the council-manager form of government began replacing the mayor-council form in the country in the early 1900s as a reaction against corrupt and inefficient party machines dominating local politics, according to the International City Managers’ Association, or ICMA, a professional association. Under the new form, appointed managers — seen as less partisan and more trained — would administer the day-to-day operations of cities instead of elected mayors.

The council-manager form was a key reform of the progressive movement. The first large city in the country to adopt the council-manager form was Dayton, Ohio, in 1914, when, in the wake of the 1913 flood, city leaders sought to implement a more “business-like” model, according to the Miami Valley Conservancy District.

An alternate view says that an older, white genteel middle class pushed through the council-manager form of government to challenge the power of Democratic machines that provided social welfare for the promise of votes, according to Robert Gabrielsky, a Ph.D. in American History.

“Rather than democratic values of majority rule and minority rights, the political and social values of this social class was rooted in what has often been characterized as ‘the authority of experts’ and the ‘experts,’ naturally enough, were them,” Gabrielsky wrote in an email this week.

Today council-manager is the most popular and fastest growing form of government in the U.S. in communities of 2,500 or more, according to ICMA. However, in small towns the size of Yellow Springs (2,500–5,000 people), the mayor-council form is more common. The council-manager form is endorsed by the National Civic League, an independent and nonpartisan citizens organization, and, according to surveys by ICMA, is seen as the more reliable and transparent than mayor-council governments.

The council-manager structure is often compared to that of a publicly-held corporation. As shareholders elect a board, which in turn selects a CEO, residents in council-manager municipalities elect a council, which selects its manager. In fact, business leaders believed that the council-manager form of government was the most efficient way to meet the challenges of postwar growth, and the form proliferated in that period, according to an ICMA history. Later, in the 1970s, because of voting reforms that empowered minorities and increased sympathy among voters for the War on Poverty and other activist programs, the pendulum swung back to the strong mayor form, the ICMA history noted.

Yellow Springs adopted its council-manager form of government in that postwar period when it was laid out in its charter, passed by voters in 1950 by a margin of 548–507. Prior to the charter, Yellow Springs’ form of government was defined by the state and included a six-member council and an elected mayor. The executive functions then held by Council committees, the mayor and superintendent of utilities were transferred to the Village manager under the new charter, according to a News article from the period. At the same time, Council was changed to five members and a separately elected mayor was given new duties as the head of the local court.

Since 1952 Yellow Springs has had eight village managers: Howard Kahoe (1952–72), Bruce Rickenbach (1972–78), Kent Bristol (1979–94), David Heckler (1994–2000), Rob Hillard (2000–05), Eric Swansen (2006–08), Mark Cundiff (2008–12) and Curliss (2012–13). Except for Kahoe and Rickenbach (an Antioch College graduate), all the Village managers came from outside the community, according to longtime Council member Tony Bent. Curliss was the Village’s first female manager.

The Village manager in YS
Council-manager governments can take many forms depending upon how powers are defined in the charter and on the relationship that develops between Councils and individual managers, according to Frisby, the ICMA spokesperson. The form’s flexibility is seen as an advantage, she added.

“In some communities, the governing body wants to exclusively focus on policy and kick it over to the manager,” Frisby said. “In others the manager plays a key role in the development of policy.”

According to the Village Charter, “all powers of the Village shall be vested in an elective Council” while a “Village manager as executive shall execute the laws and administer the government of the Village.”

The charter states that the Village manager enforces all laws and ordinances, hires all Village employees and controls all departments, runs the utility, recommends policies to Council and oversees the finances, among other duties. Council, meanwhile, appoints and removes the Village manager, establishes departments and sets employee salaries, adopts a budget and appoints commission members and Village officers (treasurer, clerk and solicitor), among other powers.

To Hempfling, the charter makes it clear that citizens are the ultimate authority through their Council representatives (elected at-large, not by precinct). Council members are policymakers who stay in touch with the opinions of citizens, while the manager implements and advises, she said. As Council member Lori Askeland described the relationship: “We are governing ourselves with the help of an expert who carries out our governance.”

But the line between policymaking and carrying out policy is not always clear, Hempfling said. Curliss agreed there is some confusion and said she would often turn to the Village solicitor for clarification on whether she could take an action or if she should first seek Council approval.

Curliss pointed out that while the charter states that Council has both executive and legislative powers, elsewhere in the document it outlines the Village manager’s role as an executive. In fact, in the “strong manager” form of government the Village uses, the executive functions overlap Council and the manager, she said. While Council has some executive powers in hiring the manager and authorizing spending, the manager makes decisions at the level of implementation, Curliss said.

“The thing that’s somewhat confusing is that [the charter] says all executive and legislative powers are in Council’s hands but the manager has all the executive functions,” Curliss said. “Executive means get it done…if you set it I’m going to implement.”

Hempfling said that in some communities, managers make the decisions, which then are “rubber stamped” by council, but in Yellow Springs that is not typically the case, nor is it ideal for democracy. Here Council members are expected to spend a great deal of time researching issues and communicating with citizens, which is one reason Hempfling supported increasing Council pay twice, to $7,200 per year, from $2,100 in 2009, she said.

Askeland agreed that “government on auto pilot” is not what local citizens want, while “constantly looking over the manager’s shoulder” is also undesirable because it erodes trust, she said. The relationship between Council and Village manager is a continued negotiation of power, she said.
A key role of the manager is to recommend policy, Curliss said. Hempfling agreed that the Village manager is Council’s main advisor, but added that the manager shouldn’t push his or her opinion. And while managers are entitled to a point of view, the research they present to Council should be unbiased, she said.

“The manager has to really see their primary responsibility to be a public servant,” Hempfling said.
Kent Bristol, Village manager from 1979 to 1994, said that he never had an agenda, but saw his role as helping the Village achieve its goals. Because many Council decisions are not based solely upon economics, but upon community values, they can only be made by elected Council members, he said. Problems can arise when managers, who have mostly come from out of the village, don’t share the town’s values.

“I always thought of myself as the guest,” Bristol said. “City managers are nothing but carpet-baggers. They come from out of town, don’t have a stake in the community and they get handed the keys to the town and the combination to the safe. It’s an invitation for abuse.”

Tony Bent, who served on Council for a total of 18 years between 1968 and 1992, believes the charter is clear that Council is “all powerful,” as demonstrated by the fact that it can fire Village managers at will, not necessarily for cause. The three managers he worked with understood their role was as an “employee of Council,” and also knew that when an issue is hot, they should slow down and let the public weigh in.

“If there had been a direct confrontation, Council would win, and managers knew that,” Bent said.

Problem of high turnover

In the last 20 years, the national average tenure of city managers in council-manager governments has grown from 5.4 to 7.3 years, but in the same period in the Village the tenure has averaged closer to three years. (The average tenure for similarly-sized communities is 7.19 years.) Prior to 2000, the average tenure here was 12 years.

High turnover can diminish the effectiveness of local government, Curliss said. When she arrived in early 2012, Curliss saw many projects languishing, especially because small communities typically have multi-million dollar projects that stretch on for years due to financing, she explained. But high turnover can hamper smaller projects too. For example, an $80,000 project to erect streetlights along Dayton Street sat idle for five years, just waiting for the final implementation.
Curliss added that it took her about one year to “get up to speed” on Village matters. Ideally, the Village manager should provide governmental stability through different incarnations of Council, since staggered elections are held every two years, Curliss said.

Council member Gerry Simms agrees that high turnover in the Village manager position is hurting the community. One reason for the turnover could be that managers are overworked, he said. At the same time, Council members have not been able to get all the details needed to best support the manager. A solution to both problems may be a committee structure, where Council members, working with the manager, staff and other citizens, would craft policy in department areas such as public safety, streets, parks and water, for example. Curliss also supports that idea, saying that it would improve communication between Council and the manager.

Council member Rick Walkey said neither the council-manager structure, nor the way Council runs the Village is the cause of high turnover. Instead, it’s largely a result of factors outside the Village’s control. Two managers left to return to communities they previously managed or lived. Cundiff, reached by phone this week, reiterated that he only left his position as manager to take his dream job in Sidney in Shelby County and “was very happy” with the Village and felt he was treated fairly by Council. Hillard also reportedly left to return to a community he previously managed, Walkey said.

It could be that managers are overworked in the Village, because of the large number of complex services the community provides, Walkey suggested. The Village has a “champagne diet on a beer budget,” he said, which may stress administrators. According to Bristol, Village managers can be stretched thin here. While it’s common for municipalities to have one employee for every hundred residents, the Village has 10 fewer employees than is ideal, he said.

Bristol added that the recent problem of high turnover might be because some managers don’t hold the same values as the community. Yellow Springs is an anomaly among wealthy communities in southwest Ohio because it is liberal, multicultural and doesn’t prioritize economics or property values above all other concerns, he said, a situation some outside managers might not be used to.

“We’re looking for someone with knowledge and experience and the right style, and all for cheap, and that’s tough to do,” Bristol said.

Askeland said that the mayor-council form of government has merit, saying that the “connection to community” can be difficult to get through the council-manager form. Because Yellow Springs is so small and the expertise needed to run the community is so great, growing a manager from within is unlikely, she said. The problem is not with Council or the community but is a matter of the “stars aligning” so Council can find a manager with the right combination of technical expertise and knowledge of Yellow Springs.

“I really don’t think that this is an impossible Council to work for and I don’t think Yellow Springs is an impossible community,” Askeland said. “We need someone who really was very committed to Yellow Springs as a place… If you don’t know what you’re getting into, you can get blindsided.”

Next week the News will explore the governance structure of the Yellow Springs school board.


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