The results of August 2008 delivered a toxic combination of officeholders. This year’s campaign is informed by the previous three years of fussing, fighting, feuding and folly that erupted four years ago after the council was sworn-in. (We must pause here to add one qualifier: The addition of Marcus Dunn and Jay Jenkins as replacements to fill unexpired terms has been a blessing to the city.)
Experience is a great teacher, and Anniston voters have surely learned some hard lessons about what matters in elected representation at City Hall. We’ll be examining the candidates more closely this time around, searching for men and women who can properly perform the tasks of mayor and council member.
If we had to boil this inspection down to a single question, it would be this one: Do you understand the Council-Manager Act, and will you respect its guidelines?
What’s the Council-Manager Act, you ask? It’s the part of the Anniston city code that protects elected officials from meddling into the affairs of city staff. The last thing the police, the street or the parks departments need is a councilman applying political pressure on city employees. Same applies to every city department.
Imagine a scenario where a politician leans on a mid-level city staffer to get something done in his ward. What’s the staffer to do, make an enemy of the powerful council member? Doesn’t this potentially make the staffer’s direct supervisor, not his or her actual boss, but the politician applying pressure? And what of the city’s established to-do list, does the aggressive politician toss it aside in favor of a pet project?
All of the above and more is why there should be a high wall between the political class and city staff. The Council-Manager Act contributes the bricks and mortar to construct that wall. A large part of Anniston problems since the start of the 2008 term can be attributed to elected officials not respecting that barrier.
So, what is the council’s role? Its members get to manage one city employee, the city manager. That’s the council’s really big hire. If the politicians don’t like how the manager is supervising city staff, then they can either make corrections or, failing that, find a new city manager.
That’s it. As the law notes, “neither the mayor nor any member of the council shall give orders to any subordinates of the city manager, either publicly or privately.”
So, once more, here’s the question all Anniston candidates must answer: Do you understand the Council-Manager Act, and will you respect its guidelines?
The city council that will be sworn in in November 2012 must respect this law. Unless it does, we can expect more of the same embarrassment we’ve seen for the past four years.