Danville city commission following the letter, but not the spirit, of the council-manager system

The Advocate-Messenger had a rather blistering editorial about the Danville city commission in the newspaper this weekend. Speaking about the recent decision to hire interim Ron Scott as the new city manager after conducting a nation-wide search:

It was all a big lie. They — specifically the slim majority of Bernie Hunstad, Gail Louis and Ryan Montgomery — never intended to respect the actions of the so-called “benchmark” and “citizens” committees they created and that they used to try to smokescreen the predetermined outcome. The whole process was so transparent it was laughable. They never intended to operate the city in the spirit of the law that defines a city manager form of government, even though they told the voters during the campaign that they would.

As I’ve written before, elections have consequences. In my opinion, what the city council did was not inappropriate from a purely political perspective. When a new president, Congress, governor, or state legislature is elected, they pursue policies in line with their preferences. That’s how we pursue political objectives in a democracy – if you have the votes you can control the agenda and achieve your political goals. There are five votes on the city commission. A majority has a similar set of policy preferences. We should not be surprised that they act to bring about those preferences when they have the votes to do so. That’s politics.

The controversy emerges, then, when we take a normative position about what a  council-manager system – the type that Danville currently has – “ought” to be.  These types of systems were designed specifically to minimize the effect of partisan politics in local government. By transferring executive power to a professional city manager, it was thought that this would remove much of the opportunity for corruption and partisan influence in the legislative branch (the city council). This is the “spirit” of the council-manager form of government. By their recent actions, it seems that the current city commission in Danville does not prefer that particular interpretation of the purpose of the council-manager system. As the editorial points out, they are behaving in the “spirit” of a mayor-council system while technically adhering to the “letter” of the council-manager system.

Now, my current objective is not to pass judgment on the commission’s actions, but rather to provide some perspective. There are many advantages to a mayor-council system, many of which I teach about in my State and Local Politics course. Different systems work better in different communities. For better or worse, though, Danville voters have twice voted to keep the council-manager form of government. Normatively-speaking, that might provide sufficient justification for our elected officials to be expected to follow the “spirit” of such a system.

Whether deserved or not, the majority in the Danville city commission has had a “P.R.” problem for about a year now, starting when they fired the former city manager Paul Stansbury. There were charges from some in the community of corruption and cronyism. (Again, I am not taking a side as to the validity of those charges, but it’s a fact that they were made.) As last November’s exit poll revealed, Danville voters disapproved of the commission’s decision by a 25-point margin.

Last week the city commission had the opportunity to address these charges and critiques by hiring an outside candidate for the city manager position, someone without a history of connections in Danville or subject to suspicions of political connections, etc. They chose, however, not to take advantage of this opportunity. It may very well be the case that Mr. Scott was the best-qualified individual for the position. (I did not review the applications personally so I don’t know.) Some of those involved with reviewing the applications, though, have indicated that there were several others who were suitable for the position. 

In summary, I personally am not surprised, nor do I think it objectively inappropriate from a purely political perspective, that the city commission chose to hire Mr. Scott as our new city manager. That’s politics! When you have the votes you can get your way. That’s why we now have curbside recycling and a new city hall building – the previous commission had the votes and got it done.

If you disagree from a normative standpoint, however, and believe that the current city commission is violating the “spirit” of a council-manager type system, the best thing to do would be to identify candidates who tend to agree with the minority (Mr. Caudill and Mr. Atkins) and do your best to get them voted into office to replace Mr. Montgomery and Ms. Louis this November. Until then, we shouldn’t be surprised that those we voted in the last election are trying their best to pursue their preferences.

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