Expert: Don’t fear continuing council, manager governing
SALISBURY — An expert says Salisbury should keep the form of government the city has had for decades, but City Council can find ways to increase oversight of the next city manager.
“I hope people aren’t scared away from the council-manager form,” said Dr. Kimberly Nelson, an associate professor at the UNC School of Government. “… I don’t think a bad experience with a single manager should discourage a community from continuing to use that form of government.”
Nelson declined to comment specifically on the situation in Salisbury, where City Council on June 17 terminated former city manager Doug Paris’ contract by mutual agreement and paid him a severance worth nearly $210,000 after a two-year tenure. The next day, Public Information Director Elaney Hasselmann quit and received a $32,700 severance.
Why Paris left and why Hasselmann received a severance remain unknown.
Most cities and large towns in North Carolina have the same council-manager form of government as Salisbury. City Council oversees only the city manager, who handles the day-to-day operations of the city and hires and fires all other city employees except the city attorney.
“The manager has a great deal of power in the council-manager form in North Carolina,” Nelson said.
Paris was 27 when City Council hired him, and he had never worked as a city manager before.
City councils are forbidden from becoming involved in operations of the government, but they can have more authority over the city manager than just hiring, firing and conducting annual evaluations, she said.
City Council members can adopt ordinances or amend the city’s charter to require their approval of certain actions by a city manager, as long as the ordinances or amendments stay within state law, Nelson said.
Paris gave three members of his management team raises of more than $13,000 last summer during a reorganization that was not announced to the public or to City Council. Hasselmann’s raises totaled more than $38,000 after Paris increased her salary repeatedly from $45,346 in 2011 to $83,845 in 2013.
A week after Paris and Hasselmann’s departures, Mayor Paul Woodson and Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell said City Council needs more oversight of the city manager.
Woodson and Blackwell said they want to know when an employee receives a large raise, and Blackwell said the council needs to review the city manager’s contract and include checks and balances “to avoid being in this situation again.”
While City Council has the right to hire only the city manager, Woodson at the time said elected officials need more control over the city manager and “a lot more knowledge from any new city manager we hire about people’s salaries.”
On Friday, Woodson said he has told interim City Manager John Sofley to keep the council informed “on any significant changes regarding personnel or salary increases.”
Councilwoman Karen Alexander on Friday said Sofley has agreed to advise the council about any employee salary increase in excess of $5,000 per year.
Salisbury’s charter already has some restrictions on the city manager. In addition to N.C. General Statute 160A-148, which spells out what the city manager can do in a council-manager government, Salisbury’s city manager may:
• Approve buying real property worth $10,000 or less
• Award, approve and execute contracts on behalf of the city that do not exceed $30,000.
• Approve agreements permitting encroachments into setbacks and rights-of-way.
• Accept dedicated streets for city maintenance provided such streets meet city standards.
• Settle claims against the city for damages to personal property that do not exceed $1,000.
• Sell city property worth $5,000 or less.
• Appoint a city clerk, who must be approved by City Council.
Nelson said City Council members would need advise from an attorney to determine what other limitations or requirements they could place on a future city manager.
“Typically, they do have an annual evaluation of a manager so that at the very least they do an in-depth assessment of their manager’s performance once a year,” she said.
City Council evaluated Paris once during his two years and three months as city manager.
If a city council finds a problem issue for a city manager, nothing stops elected officials from working with the manager closely and providing additional guidance, she said.
City managers answer not only to city councils but to the oath they take.
“Ultimately, their code of ethics tells them that they work for the City Council, and they do not work independently of the council,” Nelsons said.
Nationwide, for all municipalities with populations of at least 10,000, the council-manager form makes up 51 percent, she said. The mayor-council form, where the mayor is a paid administrator, is 35 percent. New York City is a famous example of mayor-council.
In North Carolina’s 82 cities with populations of at least 10,000, only Harrisburg uses the mayor-council form, Nelson said. Out of the state’s 553 municipalities, 255 are council-manager and 298 are mayor-council. All 100 North Carolina counties are manager form.
“Governments perform very well with the council-manager form, both fiscally and economic development-wise,” Nelson said. “… Any form of government can work, but research indicates that governments perform better under the city-manager form.”
Salisbury’s council-manager form has been in place since 1927. Woodson said both Mooresville and Monroe have had several managers in the past decade and neither has changed their form of government.
Alexander said the city would need a recommendation from a legal team before considering any changes. No citizen has suggested any change in the form of government to her, Alexander said.
Even in light of Paris’ departure, Salisbury has had a stable history with council-manager, Nelson said. Paris’ mentor and predecessor David Treme served as city manager for more than 26 years.
“With two city managers in 30 years, Salisbury should be very attractive to high quality applicants,” she said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.