By: Jerry Kurtyka
The last time we went through a change of city managers, I wrote a Letter to the Editor of El Paso, Inc. My letter was published as a guest op-ed the week of November 3, 2013. In that op-ed, I argued for a change to the city organization to elevate the role of Mayor to a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and to revise the City Manager (CM) position to be a Chief Operating Officer (COO). I want to revisit those ideas here because nothing has really changed in the ten years since, and now the city is off seeking a third city manager, perpetuating the problems that the previous two created for us, chief among which are the loss of faith in our government and massive indebtedness.
It’s time to redraw the city organization chart.
Around the same time as my op-ed appeared, Council reps Cortney Niland and Ann Lilly wrote to the El Paso Times praising the outgoing city manager, Joyce Wilson and her accomplishments. I as recall, there was a regular gush-fest of praise lavished on Ms. Wilson by the city establishment back then, as many of them had benefited from her initiatives. I don’t think the average taxpayer was as enthusiastic, however, and I will be watching to see if there is a similar outpouring of gratitude for the departing city manager, Mr. Gonzalez, whose administration has also benefited these same parties. Not much has changed in the intervening ten years.
In addition to the breakdown of trust between the city government and the governed, the main problem I see in the city manager form of government is that it disempowers the mayor, reducing his role to chairing council meetings and breaking tie votes. The Mayor’s Office lacks the resources to independently formulate and present policy to a council meeting for enactment, that is, to lead. The only city resource available to advise the mayor independently of the city manager is the city attorney, who also reports to the city council (and now the internal auditor). All other departments report to the city manager. There is currently not an internal staff voice or expertise in city government that can credibly challenge the city manager, nor one that can report on financial consequences to the mayor and city council independently of that person.
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I don’t know about you, but I want to vote for a mayor who can present us with a vision for the city and then give that person the internal resources to drive their vision through city offices. That would be the role of a CEO, not the Mayor’s Office as currently configured. By transferring the non-operating departments responsible for regulation (Controller), budget (Office of Management and Budget), and future city direction (Economic Development, Capital Improvement and Planning) to the mayor’s control, the mayor would have the resources to translate a vison into plans and actions.
Then we can redefine the current city manager position to become a Chief Operating Officer (COO), reporting to city council. This will create a division of powers in city government and provide a staff to advise the mayor independently of the COO, whose role will be to run the city’s operating functions, such as Police, Fire, Parks, Engineering, Transit, etc.
In this scenario, the Mayor’s Office would directly supervise the functions that define the city’s future direction and measure its progress. With these resources, independent of the COO and city council, the mayor will have the staff to formulate the city’s overall direction and budget priorities for city council to consider, revise and enact. This will restore the ability of the mayor to lead the city while preserving a separation of powers, as the COO would report to the city council like the city manager does now.
Will it work? Is what we have now working? Depends on who you ask. If you are one of whom Martín used to call, “the horde,” his term for the local establishment, life is great now so why change it? The city is on an orgy of debt-fueled projects and TIRF giveaways that result in a trickle-up economy in which the average taxpayer foots the bill for an investor-developer class. Young people are leaving El Paso for greener pastures and growth has slowed. In my opinion, it is time for a new generation of leadership to take the reins of the city and give a future back to the ones who will inherit it.
Start with the city organization chart.
About the Author:
Jerry Kurtyka, a retired banking and IT manager, is an activist whose focus is on water issues and sustainable community. He has studied and taught in various sustainability frameworks such as Gaia Education, Natural Capitalism, Permaculture, Project Drawdown and the Pachamama Alliance. He was the first Executive Director of the El Paso Housing Finance Corporation and finished his career in 2013 as the Project Manager for the El Paso Public Library’s Virtual Village Program. He is currently a community volunteer on the SWIM climate modeling project at UTEP, a long time Sierra Club member and on the Steering Committee for the Community First Coalition. Kurtyka submitted this editorial in his personal capacity and not as part of any organization he is associated with.
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