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From the Roundtable: Add pay, hiring power for Council members? Proceed with caution

From the Roundtable: Add pay, hiring power for Council members? Proceed with caution

Al Germond is the host of the "Sunday Morning Roundtable" every Sunday at 8:15 a.m. on KFRU. [email protected]
Five decades have passed since I attended my first City Council meeting in the old City Hall, now the Howard Municipal Building. John Longwell was the mayor, and Don Allard held the reins as city manager.
With an estimated population hovering around 50,000, the city’s wards in the mid 1960s were represented by four guys who volunteered to tackle such contentious issues at the time as animal control and cable television. It was a pretty sleepy agenda that evening, and as a student reporter, I was back at headquarters hunting and pecking at the typewriter by 9 o’clock.
Fast forwarding to the present, Columbia harbors twice the population in a sprawling area with only two more council members. Council agendas are typically contentious and long, and student reporters often still take notes on their laptop computers around midnight.
Now it appears the city is on a collision course with advocates of change. The debate over the proper system of governance could turn into a series of wrestling matches between some elected City Council members and the city manager himself.
Periodic re-examination of how the municipal corporation of Columbia conducts its business is healthy and appears to be well-intentioned. For sure, it will be interesting and certainly newsworthy to see how events play out over the coming months.
The first, long-discussed issue is compensation for Columbia’s mayor and six council members. Most of us believe they should receive some remuneration for their services. The scale runs from a token amount that says “thanks for serving” to a stipend that implies that the position is a virtual full-time job. The Men’s Club that used to constitute the council worked full-time in either the private or public sector while typically raising a family. They certainly didn’t have any surfeit of spare time to devote to their council work as citizen-volunteers.
The City Council positions have more recently evolved into what appears to be full-time jobs for some volunteer representatives. Retirement has afforded several participants the time to both serve their constituencies and engage in activity that ultimately challenges the existing system of governance. They want to supplant it with another that’s more to their liking.
The second, and relatively new, skirmish will be deciding whether to grant the City Council “advice and consent” authority over the city manager’s selection of department heads. That selection process currently is the exclusive realm of the city manager, with a few exceptions. There’s the sense that some council members might be jealous of the city manager’s power and want to break it down or eliminate it altogether. In the extreme, what some council members and a few vocal critics outside might prefer would be the eventual return to the old mayor-council form of government, which was superseded when the present city charter and council-manager form was approved and instituted by the electorate in 1949.
Although periodic examination of the system is healthy given the city’s continued advancement while goaded by the richness of citizen participation, the flags of caution should be raised whenever these activities edge toward willful destructiveness. Those who take up the cudgels of their own personal agendas might not represent the better interests of the city on the whole, and we must remain vigilant as to what is really going on. The quest for change could end up turning into a Hydra that multiplies into developments not representing the city’s best interests in the long term.
Transparency should take precedence over everything else when it comes to governing the City of Columbia.
One concern as the Age of the Internet progresses is the possibility that sub rosa electronic communications among various elected representatives might be more fact than mere fiction. This is why we must value and continuously support the Fourth Estate’s watchdog activities ranging from the printed realm to its electronic cousins in broadcasting and over the Internet.

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