Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Is There Leadership In Local Government These Days?

Local government does a lot more than it did 150 years ago--or even 50 years ago. Thus, it's much more complicated and difficult to manage on a day-to-day basis. That means that our elected officials need the help of professional managers (some would call them bureacrats, which I think is fair apart from the pejorative sense the term has acquired). We want to elect ordinary citizens (Joe the Plumbers) to lead us. But they don't always have the necessary expertise to keep government functioning, and turn to professionals for assistance.

The City of Cincinnati, like many others, has a "City Manager." Previously, I've been critical of Cincinnati's mayor/manager government, and suggested revising the charter to give more power to the mayor.

Hamilton County has an "Administrator." Presently, Patrick Thompson fills that role. Like the City Manager, he proposes a budget (that's what we saw on Monday). After public comment and tinkering by our elected executives, some version of that is then codified.

Here's my problem: creating budgets is governing. It's policy-making. Non-elected government administrators like Thompson (or the City's Milton Dohoney) should stick with management, non-policymaking tasks. When we permit the professional bureaucracy to create budgets, we let our elected officials off the hook; we relieve them of the responsibility of the office we elected them to assume.

Over the last few years, we've seen a pattern with the City budget process. Dohoney announces a budget with draconian cuts, the public is outraged, and then Mayor Mallory swoops in with a plan to save some of the services axed by the Manager's budget. Presently, I'm cynical enough to believe we'll see some form of this with the County budget: now that Thompson has announced a scary budget, Todd Portune, David Pepper, or both will announce a plan that's less harsh--or at least less unpopular.

Why have we allowed our local elected leaders to delegate policymaking decisions to professional administrators? This isn't criticism of Patrick Thompson. (For those who don't realize it, he and his staff spent countless hours on this budget, and produced it only after soliciting and reviewing feedback from every county department head.) But when the President proposes a budget to Congress, it has the President's name on it. He doesn't have his chief of staff sign it, and then publicly review and revise it. Shouldn't we expect the same of our local leaders?

Our county, like local governments across the nation, is facing a dire financial picture. Frankly, if we had a majority Republican Commission, we'd see a sales tax increase this year. (It's an only-Nixon-can-go-to-China thing. Local Democrats won't raise taxes for fear that they'll be labelled "tax and spend liberals." Republicans in this mess would look at the budget and do what needs to be done.) Commissioners Portune and Pepper won't do that, though, so we're faced with the drastically reduced budget presented this week.

So how do we restore real leadership to local government? I'll renew my call to change the city charter, and add to it the suggestion that we look at the way power is delegated in County government.

UPDATE: Having re-read the post, I wanted to make sure I'm not giving the impression that I'm singling our county commissioners out for criticism. I think all three are good public servants working to do the best by the people of this county (albeit from three different perspectives); I think the same will be true of our incoming commissioner. (Of course, all of this could just be my fondness for lawyers.) The trend towards "managers" encroaching on governance is not unique to HamCo; I just want to raise the issue and discuss whether it's a good thing.

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