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Editor’s note: Lake Helen and Deltona both recently swapped out their city administrators. Doing so can be a tumultuous process. Columnist Mark Barker explains some of the reasons why.

If you live in Volusia County, chances are your little slice of paradise is administered by the council-manager form of government. In this system, the elected council or commission hires a professional manager who essentially serves as the chief executive officer. The manager, not the elected officials, is responsible for the day-to-day operations of all city or county departments and employees, and often works with a staff of experienced department heads. 

Depending upon whom you talk to, there are myriad reasons why most communities that provide comprehensive public services have adopted this form of governance, but the bottom line is, it takes the inefficiencies of petty politics out of the equation.

At least that’s the working theory. 

As I have said before, “we, the people,” elect the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker to serve on a council or commission — like a corporate board of directors — and they appoint a manager with ostensibly strong administrative and organizational skills to run the operations, enact the public policy decisions of the elected body, and provide information to assist the legislative function.

To that end, the manager is given extraordinary powers over every aspect of government operations and services. 

For instance, the executive has complete autonomy to hire and fire employees, set internal policies, personally direct the operations of all departments and services of the government, and administrate all financial and budgetary processes.

It also means no one elected official has more “power” than any of the others. The mayor or council chair is typically relegated to refereeing public meetings and acting in a ceremonial role, cutting ribbons at the grand opening of the latest Dollar Mart, or presenting a proclamation recognizing Mavis Bracegirdle as she turns “100 years young!”

The “system” also insulates career civil servants from the often politically motivated meddling of elected officials.

Most managers do a fine job, serving multiple masters while bringing economic and civic progress to their communities.

Others? Not so much.

The role requires a strategic mind — the ability to stay ahead of the game and just above the political fray. The dexterity to communicate the important details of complex civic issues to elected officials, then guide them toward reasonable consensus, is also essential. 

It can be tough to find the right fit.

In my experience, problems arise when communities mistake a good “project manager” for someone with the comprehensive skills needed to oversee the multifaceted operations, administration and budgeting. 

Many candidates for manager positions cut their teeth as department heads or senior administrators, responsible for one slice of a much larger pie, with expertise in public works or city planning, but without the broad range of experience operating a large and unwieldy piece of machinery while keeping five to seven hypercritical politicians happy.

For instance, if asked to paint City Hall, the project manager could request proposals, administer the bid process, hire the contractor, select the grade and color of paint, set a budget for the project, supervise the minor details of the job, and see the work completed in a reasonable period within the financial parameters. 

Just don’t ask them to see that the building’s roof receives proper preventive maintenance, the lawn is mowed and the landscaping maintained, the parking lot is properly paved and striped according to regulations, the irrigation system remains operational, the air conditioning system is functional, the physical plant is safe and secure for public use, etc., etc. 

This inexperience and ineptitude often breeds inner turmoil as the manager begins blaming others for his or her own incompetence, a practice that always results in expensive turnover, the loss of institutional knowledge, low morale — and the confusion and second-guessing that come when the chief executive starts circling the wagons. Over the years, Deltona has provided us a good example.

There is an old joke that being a city manager is like riding a bike — except the bike is on fire. You are on fire. The fire is on fire. Everything is on fire.

It’s a tough gig.

— Barker writes a blog, usually about local government, at barkersview.org. A retired police chief, Barker says he lives as a semi-recluse in an arrogantly shabby home in coastal Central Florida, with his wife and two dogs. This is excerpted from his blog, lightly edited (he swears a lot) and reprinted with his permission.

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