Ed. Note: This is the first in a series of explanations of recommendations made by the city’s Charter Revision Commission. The City Council is reviewing the recommendations, and they will go to the voters in November.
By Edward Granfield
Twenty-something years ago, give or take, Mayor H. Richard Borer, Jr. offered an opinion on West Haven and other cities of similar size, demographics, geographics, etc. He described them as “The Lost Cities”!
His explanation was simple and accurate: “Cities like ours are too big to act small yet too small to be big”, meaning we have big city problems with small city resources, and the margin for error is very thin! Mayor Borer’s analysis was correct back then and holds true today.
The Charter Revision Commission did not start out with the professional city management concept on our agenda; in fact, it wasn’t even on the radar! But as the process grew in scope, supported by the research of dozens of small cites like ours across the country, it became clear to us, given the history of our city, that a change of this magnitude was worthy of serious consideration. The success rates of similar communities such as ours was/is simply too strong to ignore.
Before I dive into the facts and figures I should remind everyone that West Haven already has a similar process in place in three vital areas of our city government: The Board of Education, The Police Commission, and The Independent Fire Districts.
In each case, an elected or appointed Board or Commission is responsible for the hiring, oversight, and removal if need be of a highly educated, trained experienced, and fully credentialed professional to run those departments. This is not a foreign concept. We do it all the time.
In a council/manager-style of governing, our elected City Council, led by an elected mayor would still be a key part of the process.
Let’s review some key statistics: First Connecticut, of the 59 Cities with populations more than 37,000 people, 30 are mayor/ city council and 29 are council/manager, hardly uncommon! Each of the top five council/manager-led cities in Connecticut have an A Moody’s bond rating or better.
By comparison West Haven has a BAA3 rating, the second-lowest ranking possible. Nationwide over 105,000,000 of your fellow American citizens reside in communities with a council/manager form of governing.
In fact, 63% of cities over 50,000 people govern in this manner. 67% of Moody’s AAA bond rated communities are run by professional city managers, and 75% of the cities recognized as “All American Cities” by the National Civil League are operating under council/manager style of government. One final note of interest, a recent IBM Global business service research report found that cities operating under the council/manager form of governing typically perform 10% more efficiently than mayor/council cities do.
As for our mayor, yes, the role would change, in fact some communities don’t even have one, while others reclassify the position as “Ceremonial.”
The West Haven Charter Revision Commission disagrees with both of those scenarios and endorses different format. In our proposal the mayor is still elected city wide and would become the leader of the City Council. The position itself would be reduced to part-time status, however under a council/manager system, our elected officials are still in control of local legislation, city policy, budget approval, adoption and oversight of local law, regulation, and ordinances, as well as appointments to volunteer to boards and commissions.
As for our citizens, your role would not change at all. You vote for and elect your local officials, speak out on issues and concerns, and hold them accountable for the decisions they make at the podium and on Election Day.
A city manager is a highly trained, educated professional administrator, who works for you the people. If the citizens of the community are not satisfied with the results, they can exercise their rights and lobby the city council for a change.
Legally you cannot fire or remove an elected mayor, But you do have the power to remove and replace a city manager at any time should the need arise. However nationwide research on this topic suggests the turnover rate in professional city management is very low, probably because given the proper circumstances, resources, and support, it works.