To Make an Omelette in Branson, You Have to Break a Few Eggs
Last year, voters in Branson voted in a new mayor. Last month, they went further by voting into office a new city council majority aligned with that mayor. Clearly, the people of Branson want change.
In the past few weeks, the newly elected Branson leadership team has dramatically altered city management in Branson. The city administrator, assistant city administrator, city attorney, finance director, and the head of planning & zoning (and several other city employees) have either resigned or been fired.
There is, not surprisingly, opposition to this in Branson. A former city official stated:
“Branson does not need this, gentlemen. You three were not elected to conduct business like this. . . . We’re not supposed to be tearing the city apart.”
According to Skains [a former alderman who just lost an election], remaining city staff are “terrified” of being fired at any moment.
I am not unsympathetic to people losing their jobs, but the reality is that if voters want real change in their cities and towns, replacing the part-time elected officials over time usually won’t get it done. Most Missouri cities are run by full-time bureaucrats who have significant power advantages over the part-time elected officials.
Leaders dealing with powerful and recalcitrant bureaucrats is a fight as old as history, but the dynamic at play in Missouri towns is heightened by the fact that the full-time employees simply have much more information at their disposal. It is hard for a part-time councilmember to stand up to a city attorney with years of experience and a law degree, no matter how right the councilmember may be.
I remember over a decade ago when the people of Ellisville were opposed to a tax-increment financing (TIF) plan and elected a new mayor who was opposed to the TIF. The new mayor did all he could, but the pro-TIF city administrator, city attorney, and other city staff answered to the pre-existing council majority that hired them, not the new mayor. They did all they could to frustrate the new mayor, up to and including impeaching him and removing him from office. (The new mayor was returned to office by a county judge who found the entire impeachment process invalid.) Eventually, after another election cycle, the anti-TIF forces won and ultimately stopped the TIF, but the fight was brutal.
But back to Branson. If the people of Branson want to see change and have voted for change, then change is what they should get. Perhaps they will get more change than they realized. In that case, Mencken’s line that “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard,” may be proven true in Southwest Missouri. But when the citizens of a city or county want change, the interests of the voters should be the priority, not the employment status of city workers.
Change is hard, but when people see what their communities are doing—be it mask mandates, tax subsidies, or hospital privatizations—and demand accountability and new leadership, they deserve to have it.