For Policy not Poses

Management and executive compensation

A friend and neighbor recently had letters in the Capital to the effect that we need to elect a competent mayor rather than hire a city manager, that the way to get one is to pay more, and that declining the proposed raise is an admission of incompetence. Well. Isn’t that the same thinking that got us today’s collection of fabulously well-paid hedge-fund, banking, and insurance executives? Let me just say that I respectfully disagree.

I had a letter to the Capital arguing in the opposite direction some time ago, and I repeat its primary points here. The label “administrator,” “manager,” “chief executive officer,” or, following some corporate usage, “chief operating officer,” matters little. The goal is to ensure both competent management and to insulate that management from political interference by any one person.

Mayors are elected for leadership, vision, charisma, things like that, and it’s only blind luck electing one with any management ability. What makes us think we will be so lucky in the next election or any other election? If a mayor proves managerially incompetent, the recall mechanism is burdensome and expensive, including signatures of 30 percent of eligible voters (which may sound easy, but total turnout for the last City election was less than 34 percent) followed by a referendum and selection of a replacement.


Photo by Jon Renaut

Do professional management training, qualifications, and experience guarantee competence? No, nothing guarantees competence; they merely improve the odds. If we get a city manager who turns out not to be managerially competent, he or she can be fired at will — not by one politician in reprisal for something said or done, but by a majority of the whole city council. It might still be “political,” but it’s less likely, and it will not be personal.

I have announced that, without getting into the argument over what a mayor deserves to be paid, in this economy I could not accept the proposed raise and that I would hire a professionally qualified city manager despite the City Council’s negative vote. Rather than an admission of incompetence, it’s a recognition that nothing about the electoral process will inform the voters whether any candidate, including me, is managerially competent or not.

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