Reform City Manager Rules In Missouri
As published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch:
Mike Royko’s classic book Boss, about Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (the first one), has a great thread in it about the political use of Chicago building codes. Chicago had one of the nation’s strictest building codes, but everyone knew it was rarely enforced. However, if you did something really terrible, like rent an apartment to a black person in a white neighborhood or put a Republican political sign in your window, you quickly found out just how strict the building code was. There are similar examples of selective political enforcement for many other laws, which brings us, once again, to Ellisville, Mo.
Many Missouri cities have adopted a “city manager” form of government. As part of that form of government, cities often place strict rules prohibiting contact between elected city officials and city employees or contractors other than the city manager. (Often, the only exception to this is for official city investigations.) Having such a contact was one of the accusations against former Ellisville Mayor Adam Paul in his impeachment. Despite good intentions of preventing political interference, those rules against any contact are thoroughly ridiculous. Preventing contact between elected officials and city employees except the city manager serves to empower the city manager over the elected officials, not to mention minor little issues with freedom of speech and association.
Economists would refer to the core problem here as information asymmetry. City managers are full-time, well-compensated employees of a city, while elected city officials are, in most cases, part-time. City managers have the access to information, time to review it, and training to interpret it. That is not automatically a bad thing. It is generally why they were hired in the first place. However, in areas of potential disagreement between a city manager and other city officials, the elected officials are certainly at an information disadvantage. This can become especially true for elected officials who may be in the political minority on their legislative body. A city manager working closely with a political majority can readily shut out other officials from the debate. If those elected officials in the minority have no way to access information, such as talking to other city employees who may know the true story, how can those public officials do their jobs?
Beyond being able to represent their constituents, these restrictive contact rules are, almost by necessity, selectively enforced. They are written so broadly that elected officials can be punished, if they are a target, for the most mundane of discussions. If we really impeached every local elected official who had a minor conversation with a city employee, the people would have a lot of good things to read about on Sunday.
Ellisville, Mo., provided a recent example of this problem. The Ellisville City Council majority, city manager, and city attorney opposed the mayor on key issues. The political dispute ultimately resulted in the mayor’s impeachment for, among other (generally minor) charges, speaking with a city contractor outside of “approved” channels. By all accounts, the discussion was nothing more than an innocuous question-and-answer about what was happening to a group of residents being forced to move. Leaving aside the validity of the impeachment (which is currently subject to litigation), removing an elected official from office for having a brief conversation about his or her constituents should be deeply troubling. In normal instances, obtaining new data or counsel to improve your decision-making is, suffice it to say, a good thing.
City charter rules that limit communication only to the city manager and block all other municipal contacts by elected officials are methods of limiting information. That is rarely a good thing. These rules empower city managers and their political allies, and can be too easily turned into a political weapon. We need safeguards against political interference in daily municipal matters, but these charter rules are too blunt and selectively enforced. Cities would be better off removing those restrictions. Good government deserves open information, not restricted access and knowledge chokepoints.
David Stokes is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.