Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Running a government like a business

For decades well-intentioned citizens have complained that government should be run more like a business (ostensibly meaning less like a bureaucracy) but sometimes when governments heed that challenge they're often chastised by the uninformed.

So it is with former Pleasant Prairie village trustee Alex Tiahnybok who complains that since he left the village board last year there have been only a couple of board votes that weren't unanimous. He believes that's a problem and there are those who are perfectly willing to jump on that bandwagon.

That argument turns out to be a mirage.

You remember what a mirage is? Travelers in the desert were reputed to see things in the distance which appeared distinct and clear but, the closer they got to them, they got more fuzzy and when they were reached they disappear. The unanimous vote diatribe has the same dissolving quality.

In the village's case, it's a fair question but a bum rap.

The biggest problem with the complainers is that they don't understand the structure of the village government. In municipal-speak, it's a council-manager government in that while there is an elected village board of a president and four trustees, the village is run by a professional manager, Michael Pollocoff.

While more than half of America's municipalities over 10,000 are council-manager governments, in Wisconsin that form isn't as widely used in its "pure form."

For example, the City of Kenosha has an elected mayor, who is the chief executive, but also an appointed administrator to assist in day-to-day operations. The city administrator in Kenosha is more like the mayor's "right hand man."

In the traditional council-manager form, the manager, like a chief executive officer in the business world, pretty much runs things which, in some communities, even includes hiring and firing department heads. While the manager is answerable to the council, which can set policy and has the final say in disputes, in practice the manager is the CEO and the council the board of directors.

This is a substantially different relationship. A good manager will have things running smoothly, efficiently and professionally. When that's the case there isn't really all that much for the council to do differently than, say, a corporation's board of directors. The council (which is usually smaller in council-manager communities) may adopt ordinances and resolutions, approve the budget and make broad policy decisions but in a well-run municipality the manager will have researched the issues, presented recommendations and, just as in the business world, the council will likely follow them with little or no intervention.

Although it isn't written in any statute or ordinance or, for that matter, a city management textbook, you can kind of think of this like a pinball machine where the council gets to activate the "flippers" if the ball starts to get out of hand. In a well-run city, however, that isn't done much because it isn't necessary.

So when Alex and others suggest that a dearth of dissenting votes is a sign of a problem it may well be that the exact opposite is true: it's the sign of a well-run government that doesn't need village board fiddling with the "flippers."

Further, the "unanimous vote" analysis is pragmatically flawed because it implies that there are no questions and no dissent. That's simply not true.

First, many of the issues that come before the village board may have been vetted in some detail by village staff and, quite often, the plan commission. If something needs to be tweaked, that's often done before it gets to the board for a vote.

Second, the board, when it appears that there are problems with an issue that may not result in consensus, will likely defer a vote so that the village staff can go back and attempt to address the concerns. If that's done, then it stands to reason that the vote will likely be unanimous.

That's not to say that there aren't times when questions need to be asked or complaints aired. (I'm sure John Steinbrink, jr., won't be happy to read below that I'm less than thrilled with snow and ice control in the latest storm but most of the time I have nothing but well-deserved praise for John and his crew. I'd have little credibility if I didn't also recognize the occasional lapse.) But to blindly equate a "no vote" with a well-run government and unaniminity with a poorly run one is utterly disingenuous.


Anonymous said...


This is a great post. I believe you should submit it to the Kenosha News. While Alex and Jeff may have been well-intentioned, they clearly wanted to intervene in the day-to-day running of the Village. This led to many nasty confrontations between Alex and Mike P.

If Alex understood the relationship of a Board of Directors to a CEO a little better, most of his snide comments about the Village would stop.

RAG said...

Just for grins I popped up the minutes of the city commission in St. Joseph, Michigan (across the lake from us) which has a manager form of government. In the ten random meetings I pulled all votes were unanimous.

Again, in manager communities the main focus is on professional administration.

RAG said...

I also want to point out that this is not a "bash Alex" post because he isn't the only one to have chanted this mantra. He is probably the most recent but the same analysis applies to everyone.

Anonymous said...

This is just common sense. If the CEO knows his or her stuff and the company is well-managed, the board is happy.