Monday, August 28, 2006

THE CITY DESK - Rory Riddler, Councilman Ward 1

Professionalism Sacrificed To Patronage
To Satisfy Big Money Special Interests
When I began writing years ago, it was on one of those heavy black metal typewriters with ribbons that needed changed and keys that stuck. I don’t miss it very much. I’m a big fan of nostalgia, but not when it comes to the vast improvements technological innovation has brought to word processing.

But one advantage the old machines had over our current keyboards was the satisfying sound the type made hitting the platen as you pounded out a story. The madder you were the harder you hit the keys and the louder the resulting clack, clack, clack of the type. When you wrote an angry letter the whole house or office knew it.

This week’s column is a letter I wrote to the editor of the St. Charles Journal about their preference for a political patronage form of government and getting rid of our professional City Administrator form of government. To fully enjoy the letter in the true spirit it was written, feel free to loudly tap a pen or pencil to approximate the sound my old typewriter would have made. Don’t forget the loud ding the bell made at the end of every line and resulting crash of the carriage return.

I’m sending my response to the Journal as well, but wanted you to have the opportunity to read an unedited version in your local newspaper of choice.

Dear Editor:

I was surprised by the Suburban Journals Editorial series against allowing voters this November to decide on a change to the City Charter. It must mean you are fairly certain a larger turnout of voters would have overturned getting rid of our professional City Administrator form of government, now that they have had time to fully understand what the choice truly was.
Many voters in the low turnout 2004 April election thought they were simply voting on a full time Mayor…not to eliminate the position of City Administrator. Nor did they realize that all City employees would become in-fact, political patronage positions who could be fired on the whim of one person.

Currently the Mayor cannot fire any employees. Only the City Administrator can hire, fire or discipline. The Mayor and Council must jointly agree on the hiring by the Administrator of Department Directors, but beyond that employees are insulated from politics and are able to work in a professional atmosphere and not one of political fear.

I might also point out that these major changes to our Charter were approved by only a 300 vote margin citywide. In November of this year, over twice as many voters will go the polls as voted in that April election. It would seem preferable that such a major change to the form of government be decided by as many voters as possible, especially given the slim 1% margin it passed by to begin with.

You mentioned that this Charter change, which will take affect in April of 2007, will make City Government just like County Government. That is false. It will make City government in St. Charles the same as City government in the City of St. Louis. There Department Directors must raise campaign money for incumbent Mayors to keep their jobs. Every decision a Department Director or city employee makes after April 2007 will have to be with an eye to furthering the political agenda of one person.

What if you prominently supported the Mayor’s opponent in an election and then have to get permits approved by a City Department? Will you be treated the same as a financial supporter of the Mayor?

One glaring difference with County government that you held up as your model, is that County Government “elects” a Sheriff. We do not elect a Police Chief. Even in the City of St. Louis, the State of Missouri recognized that having a police force with that much power was not safe to place under the control of one person. They have a Board of Police Commissioners. But the Journal would take the position that one politically elected Mayor in St. Charles should have the sole authority to fire, discipline or promote the men and women of the Police Force?

Perhaps the Journal simply has a hard time believing that the current occupant of the office of Mayor, whom your newspaper supports, would punish enemies, reward friends and seek to manipulate the actions of city employees. But can you say that every past Mayor in recent memory would not have? What guarantees can you offer that future Mayors would not?
There is also a distinct difference in the quality of employees that seek to work under non-partisan professional city administrator governments and those who take jobs in political communities. I sat in on the interviews of candidates for several department head positions and I can say that it was a definite concern for many applicants. Many did not want to work in a city where the Mayor held all the reins and there were no checks on the power of the Mayor when it came to employees.

Many of the best and brightest simply will not work for a community where a Mayor can fire them on a whim. This is also a fact observed and commented on during the hiring process by our current City Administrator Allan Williams.

I also wonder if future Councils will have as much faith in what an employee testifies to at a Council meeting, knowing that the employee can be fired or disciplined for going against the wishes of the Mayor?

I should also point out that a City Administrator is hired on the basis of his or her specialized training, degrees and experience. Mayors are elected based on popularity. I am a great believer in elected representation, oversight and accountability of professionals to the people through their elected representatives. But that doesn’t mean you turn over the day to day operations of a multi-million dollar enterprise to the person who kissed the most babies.

No reporter from the Journal was at any of the Charter Review Committees to hear any of the discussion. No reporter or editor called me as Chairman of the Charter Review Committee to ask about our recommendations. I would feel better if I felt your opinion was an informed one.

I might also point out that the Journal took a similar stand against a recent proposed change to the St. Charles County Charter. That proposal cut back on the near dictatorial power of the County Executive to use the power of his office to sue municipalities without the consent of the County Council. That abuse of power has cost County taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills. Fortunately, a majority of voters rejected the arguments of the Journal editorial and on August 8th passed the amendment…proof that voters sometimes change their minds given more information on a subject.
Unfortunately City voters will not be given the same opportunity as County voters as four members of the Council chose to deny them that right. The City of St. Charles will now have its form of government downgraded to a political patronage form of government starting in April of 2007. Whatever special interests feel they can spend enough to elect a Mayor can now exert absolute influence over the actions of every single department of City government. One stop shopping for special interests may be efficient, but it is not in the best interests of the citizens and taxpayers.


Rory Riddler
City Councilman
Ward One