Time for change

  • Wednesday, August 6, 2014

To the Editor:

A little over 100 years ago, Georgetown’s eligible voters made an important choice. Looking to modernize city government, they placed control over its day-to-day operations in the mayor’s hands.

They did so by voting in favor of the so-called “strong mayor” form of government. It was a good choice at the time. Back then it was possible for one person to run city affairs and still earn a living doing something else.

Times have changed. At the turn of the 20th Century, the city of Georgetown was less than half its present size. The annual budget back then was a fraction of the $33,000,000 of today.

The law has gotten more complicated since then too. It now includes mandates issued by an alphabet soup of federal and state agencies. An insistent and persistent lot, they seldom pay for what they demand.

Combined, these changes in size, budget and law, have added greatly to the amount of time and energy that must be devoted to running the city.

The job of running local government is a very important one. City Hall, as the saying goes, is where “the rubber meets the road.” Whether the community grows or withers depends largely on how well the city’s is managed.

The recent Op-Ed piece in the Times by Mayor Scoville illustrates this point well, surveying, as it does, some (but certainly not all) of larger projects and challenges commanding his time and attention at City Hall.

Omitted from the essay are the myriad details involved in delivering safe drinking water, treating sewage, draining storm water, keeping the lights burning or the many other chores attended to every day by local government which the mayor must oversee.

As informative as his article was, Mayor Scoville also did not write about the one thing that forces him (and every mayor before him) to work so hard.

It is this: While the responsibilities of office are full-time, the pay is not. In fact, the pay falls below the federal guideline for a single individual living in poverty. Simple survival, therefore, requires Georgetown’s “strong mayor” to earn a living elsewhere. S/he must work two full time jobs, only one of which pays enough to pay the bills.

Another practical reality compounds the problem. Even though the job of “strong mayor” is hard and complicated, there are no educational, training, or experience requirements to hold the office.

Any registered voter can run for, and get elected as, “strong mayor.” Candidates do not have to know anything about municipal budgeting and accounting, city planning, purchasing and bidding requirements, the administration of government contracts, health, safety, fair employment, environmental or homeland security laws, economic development or much of anything else to get on the ballot, but can get elected nonetheless.

This is a very big problem.

Once elected, a new “strong mayor” has to spend a lot of time trying to catch up. Meanwhile, the quality of day-to-day life in town continues to rely heavily on the mayor’s job performance. Given that reality, Murphy’s Law [“If something can go wrong, it will.”] will inevitably take catch-up too.

The entire community will suffer when it does.

What all this leads to is what, to me, is an inescapable conclusion. Responsibility for supervision of the day-to-day operations of the city of Georgetown has grown too complex and time-consuming to be controlled by a part-time and amateur politician.

Those responsibilities are now big time and full-time. They require the attention of a trained and experienced professional schooled in public administration. Put another way, Georgetown has outgrown the “strong mayor” form of government. But there is a solution to this problem.

There is another, more modern governmental structure called “Council-manager” form. Most cities and towns in South Carolina have adopted it. It transfers responsibility for the day-to-day operations of city government from an amateur politician to a professional manager.

The manager is hired by, and serves at the pleasure of, a majority of the City Council, taking marching orders from that majority. S/he then oversees the hiring and performance of city workers, keeps Council informed of progress made on Council-set goals, prepares a budget for consideration by Council, and then keeps spending within an approved budget.

Freed from day-to-day management concerns, the mayor can then focus on important matters like business recruitment, community relations, cultural and recreational opportunities and the like – tasks requiring interpersonal skills more than professional credentials.

As the first among equals on City Council, the mayor would also continue to play a key role in moderating the debates of Council about the host of matters that come before that body, including, most especially those involving proposed capital improvement projects, the imposition of taxes, the setting of utility rates and spending of taxpayer money.

Georgetown is a beautiful community that can enjoy a very bright future. But that outcome is by no means certain. Inept or ill-formed amateur management, no matter how well intended, can stand in the way.

That obstruction can be removed. It can if voters scrap the present antiquated way of running things and modernize local government. The change can be made by public referendum. City Council can, and I believe, should put the question on the ballot.

Tom Rubillo

Georgetown

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