Friday, September 16, 2011

Strong mayor or city manager?

Merits, drawbacks weighed in debate over Ketchum’s form of government

Express Staff Writer

Former Ketchum Mayor Ed Simon speaks Wednesday. He supports a change to the council-manager form of government. Photo by David N. Seelig

More professional, more democratic, more accountable, more representative. Depending on one's views, the strong-mayor form of government or the council-manager form is the one that offers the best system for Ketchum.

Business-advocacy group Wood River Economic Partnership hosted a town-hall meeting Wednesday to educate the public on both types. Voters will decide in November whether to swap the current system for a council-manager form.

About 75 people attended the meeting at Sun Valley Inn's Limelight Room. Informational presenters were Ketchum City Administrator Gary Marks, attorney Mike Moore, whose law firm Moore Smith Buxton & Turcke serves as Ketchum's legal counsel, and Ben Marchant, Jerome city administrator.

Speaking in favor of the council-manager form of government were Ketchum resident Anne Corrock and former Mayor Ed Simon.

Arguing in favor of the current system were former Mayor Jerry Seiffert, Wally Huffman, Sun Valley Co.'s director of resorts and resort development, and former Ketchum City Administrator Jim Jaquet, who filled in for scheduled speaker Jack Bariteau, a developer who was unable to attend.

WREP has so far not taken a position on the issue, said Executive Director Doug Brown.

"We're wanting to get the information out," he told the gathering. "Right now, we're here to learn, just like you are."

In the strong-mayor form of government, the citizen-elected mayor is the chief executive of the city. The City Council is the policy-setting, or legislative, body. A major attribute of this system, according to Marks, is that as an elected executive, the mayor is accountable directly to the public concerning policy implementation.

Drawbacks include a partisan political perspective when the mayor implements policy, he said. Additionally, a mayor can be influenced by special interests and may not have the necessary job skills.

In the council-manager form, Marks said, the chief executive is a hired city manager. The mayor has the same authority as council members and can vote. Other mayoral duties are mostly ceremonial. Mayors often are selected from among the council, though the council can pass an ordinance allowing the public to elect a mayor. Mayoral duties would not expand, however.

Under the council-manager system, as in the strong-mayor system, the City Council is the policy-setting, or legislative, body.

Attributes of this form, according to Marks, include a more professional and experienced chief executive who may not be as susceptible to special-interest influence. Political considerations are not a motivator for policy-implementation decisions.

A drawback, he said, is that the chief executive is not elected by the citizenry and may be detached from the people's will and the community's priorities.

Though these are the two main types of municipal governments in Idaho, Marks said, Ketchum's is a combination of both: its mayor is the chief executive but the city administrator carries out most day-to-day operations.

Simon said the council-manager form depoliticizes many decisions because a trained, educated professional handles them.

"Times are changing and it's time for Ketchum to change," he said. "Meritocracy is what we should all strive for."

Seiffert said there is no evidence that that system would be better for Ketchum, and the current, hybrid system already has professionalism among staff and elected representatives.

"Only (this) system will reflect the constituency and the concerns you have," he said.

Corrock said that if the hybrid system with a professional administrator has such value, it should be implemented in its entirety. The city could, she said, "get full use of these qualified professionals that we've hired."

Simon added that the new system would address issues about elected officials' performance.

"The public sentiment of people I spoke with showed a dissatisfaction," he said.

Huffman—who previously in the meeting expressed concern about how a new form of government with new council members would impact the River Run development agreement between Sun Valley Co. and Ketchum—questioned how dissatisfaction with current elected officials warranted a system overhaul.

"What has it possibly got to do with changing the form of government?" he asked.

Voters will answer that question on Nov. 8. If Ketchum voters endorse the change, the top five vote-getters out of 13 candidates will serve as the leaders of the new government.

Rebecca Meany:

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