Gary Herzig: People should debate form of government

The following recent Daily Star front-page headline caught my eye: “Otsego Board sets December vote on creating county manager position.”

“The Otsego County Board of Representatives is on schedule for a December vote on a local law to establish a county administrator position,” read the first sentence of the article. Did many notice the contradiction? Probably not — after all, don’t the words administrator and manager mean pretty much the same thing to most of us?

I voted in 2012 in favor of a city manager. I never thought to question whether we should create the position of city manager or the position of city administrator as the words “manager” and “administrator” are often used interchangeably in conversation. Since that time, I have learned that when it comes to local government, an administrator and a manager are two very different animals.

Some may have received a clue from the article’s eighth paragraph where it stated that according to the proposed job description, the county administrator “would not diminish the authority of the County Board of Representatives, but would instead act as a day-to-day overseer and manager of county affairs.” This statement is important in a number of ways. Not least among them is that state law requires voter approval before any powers or authorities can be taken away from elected offices. A county or city manager assumes authorities previously belonging to the elected officials, while a county or city administrator does not.

In today’s complex world, having a professional appointed to oversee the day-to-day operation is a good idea. Whether this professional is an administrator or a manager, significantly impacts the residents, business owners and taxpayers of any community. Unfortunately, taxpayers are sometimes left out of that debate and may not even be made aware of the options. I confess the option of manager vs. administrator was not clear to me when I voted to support the creation of the position of city manager in 2012.

Understanding the difference between a city manager and a city administrator may be helped with a bit of history. About 100 years ago, a movement to make local governments more business-like and less political advocated to transfer powers from elected officials to an appointed professional city manager. City manager traditionalists discourage council committees and representation by wards — believing that a trained professional would know best how to run the city and could do so most effectively in a more business-like environment with the absence of politics.

Not all agree. Politics, after all, is defined as “the opinions of people on how their government should be run.” Unlike a business, government is an organization owned, and paid for, by the people. Some who believe in the importance of an appointed experienced professional, but want to maintain transparency and the authority of their elected officials, prefer the position of city administrator. In essence, they do not want to see their opinions of how their government should be run (politics) devalued.

While a city administrator oversees day-to day business, he or she takes no powers away from the elected council members. Proponents say that this form of government uses the best of both worlds by hiring an experienced professional to oversee the day-to-day operation while not sacrificing contact with the opinions of community members on how their government should be run. Decisions by an administrator — like which roads to repair — become more transparent when debated in public, as opposed to being decided behind closed doors by a city manager. A city administrator generally consults closely with the mayor and council when developing the budget; while Oneonta’s City Charter requires the manager to show the 100-page budget to the council only three weeks before members are asked to approve it.

Here in Otsego County, it is interesting to watch the county move toward a city administrator while the city of Oneonta works to adapt to a city manager form of government. My take is that a majority of our residents see the hiring of an experienced professional to oversee day-to-day business as a step in the right direction. The difference between a manager and an administrator — and that the choice exists — has not been made sufficiently clear, in my opinion. As a result, the people have had little opportunity to debate their preference and express their opinions on how their government should be run. Their ability to do so is what we call — politics. 

Gary Herzig is the mayor of the city of Oneonta. He can be contacted at mayor@oneonta.ny.us.

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