Connecting the Dots ~ Fred Allebach

Fred Allebach Fred Allebach is a member of the City of Sonoma’s Community Services and Environmental Commission, and an Advisory Committee member of the Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency. Fred is maintenance chair of the Sonoma Overlook Trail Stewards and an active member of the Sonoma Valley Housing Group and Transition Sonoma Valley. As well, Fred has a KSVY radio show on Sunday nights at 8:PM, participates in the Sonoma Valley Action Coalition for immigration issues, and with the Sonoma Climate Coalition.


Sign Up for Email Notifications

The role of staff in city government, part one

Posted on March 8, 2018 by Fred Allebach

What is the role of city staff in developing public policy? This is not an easy question to parse. In this four-part essay, I’ll flesh out different angles to shine light on this topic.

Sonoma has a council-manager form of city government.

The citizens elect city council members to represent their interests, and the council appoints and hires the city manager. Ultimately the whole house of cards stands on the premise of representative democracy, that the will of the people is being reflected and enacted.

The city council has legal and policy setting purview, and staff carries out those decisions. The council is like the board of directors and the city manager is like the CEO, she runs the ship and is the chief advisor to the council.

Says Michael Roberts,the council-manager form of government was created to fight corruption and unethical behavior by fostering professionalism, transparency, responsiveness and accountability. To the greatest extent possible, council-manager cities and counties separate the political nature of law and policy making with the apolitical nature of implementation.”

“As the council’s chief policy advisor, the city manager recommends city policy for consideration by the council. The manager has a professional obligation to give complete and unbiased information to the council. The manager consults with department heads and the city attorney to ensure the advice he or she gives is sound.”

In the council-manager form of government, the mayor is essentially equal to the other council members. This is not a strong mayor form of government where the mayor is directly elected as such.

Roberts goes in to say, “voters are ultimately in charge in either form of government. Elected and appointed officials must be cognizant of the city’s political environment. Failing to accurately predict the political fallout from decisions can bring a quick end to an elected official’s time in office or a city manager’s tenure in a particular city.

“Department heads feel the political implications of a city’s form of government. These directors either report to the city manager in the council-manager system or the mayor in the strong mayor system. While city managers keep politics in mind, they are public administrators by profession and therefore tend to have a better understanding of operational issues and can better advise their direct reports on handling operational problems.”

Administration vs. employees

In any workplace, management is in charge. City staff has management, and then mid to lower level employees underneath. Tensions always arise between management and employees, and a human relations department or ombudsperson is the forum to resolve this conflict. Unions and the labor negotiation process also mediate different party’s workplace interests.

Any hierarchy will have normal human power struggles, who is top dog, ego things, enmities, a normal slate of relationship issues. To get a reasonable take on any regime will take talking to a lot of folks, and not buying into the first meme or explanation that comes down the pike.

There is also a distinction between management and administration. Leadership stands out as an emergent property, that some have and some don’t.

Tone is set from the top

In a strong city manager form of government, the city manager has a lot of power. City department heads (planning, building, finance, public works) are like the city manager’s inner council. As with any organization, the tone set from the top pervades the whole. When a new general manager or coach comes in, many times they clean house and put their own team in, so as to better enact their vision for style of play and organizational culture. This is “the culture” and concomitant tone, that makes a difference between winning and losing teams. For example, the San Antonio Spurs basketball team has a great organizational culture that many have tried to emulate. At the end of the day, this is not really a formula but a function of personalities and their synergy. Steve Kerr and Bob Meyers have it, Pop and R.C Buford have it; others don’t. Many try to emulate a formula for good organizational culture, but if they are not naturals, it won’t work. The importance of tone setting from the top cannot be underestimated.

However, a CEO/ city manager can have her organizational culture and tone compromised by a split board or council that is not providing clear direction.

Three votes

This is where being cognizant of the political backdrop matters. In Sonoma, for example, policy is going to stem from whatever three votes says it is. Three votes can shift. The council is not like a crystal or mineral that always cleaves in the same way. For mundane issues, votes appear variable; for big land use issues and issues that hearken back to primary ideological allegiances, the current council is predictably split. There is usually a swing vote or wild card factor when an issue blends interests in novel ways.

For people in administration and politics, shifting sands are part of the game. This is where it behooves the city manager to always be fair, and not come off as having too strong a flavor in any one way. Policy after all, is the council’s job. Yet the public is behind the council, and public issues have to go into the staff report mix as well. This is quite a balancing act, to read all the political tea leaves, and be fair to all parties.

The evolution of legal systems and state society

State society delegates power to a rule of law and procedure. This displaces a putative “state of nature”, every-dog-for-himself mode of social control. We have made this tradeoff to escape a fate of endless feuding, cycles of revenge, and fighting with no recourse to any neutral body. Government and the rule of law is not quick or emotionally satisfying. What it is, is a rational way for complex societal interests to organize, bargain, and negotiate without having to kill one another over differences. Government is a human adaptive response, to the more complex levels of organization we have taken on as result of the advent of hierarchical civilization and ensuing population growth.

Today, society has serious human-caused problems, with climate change, environmental degradation, not enough food, major socio-economic inequality, and it is reasonable to look to government(s), as our primary collective agents, to solve these problems. Government is the manifestation of people’s need for a forum of collective action.

Here’s the twist. There is a backdrop of law that by now, stands behind about every possible situation. The law is the arbiter and decider when people differ on how things should be. There are precedents, rules and regulations for everything. An appeal, or lawsuit is last stop on the issues-conflict train.

Is the law fair? Is it clear? Is it pure? This depends. What ends up being made as law really just reflects the interests of those in power. Those who have power flex it by using the legal process to set their own interests as the law. Hence we have politics, to gain control over law making.

In state society, in a democracy, the people have directional authority by voting in poltiicians who represent their interests. Citizens should never forget that they make and sanction the law, and the bureaucracy. In today’s day and age, where special interests, Citizens United, and dark money control so much, the ideals of democracy and transparency has pretty well turned into a naked power struggle. That’s how things are. Sonoma and Sonoma County are a fractal of this national political power struggle, not somehow magically separate.

Citizen alienation from the efficacy of government

Who are the masters of staff? Citizens and residents are the ultimate masters. They have one vote each to elect the council. The council directs the city manager, who administers all other staff. Thus, staff does the people’s business.

Alienation from government comes, in one form, from when special interests appear to override the will of the people. It is not then the people’s business that is getting done by government but the will of big money. The hidden political calculus here is that a demographic minority, moneyed interests, may come to count more for council members than the actual majority of democratic voters that elected them.

Government as the problem meme

There has been a political trend in the last 40 or so years to vilify government and bureaucracy as no good. In my estimation, what this really amounts to is that the political gains made during the 1960s and 1970s were not to the liking of conservative white men, nor to the business class. Since Reagan, progressive social and environmental programs and laws have been under constant, calculated attack from the Right. The upshot is that government has gotten a bad rap, and been defunded, so that citizens who look to government to address social and environmental ills, find a weakened entity unable to enact many strong measures. The people get split councils and political bodies. Some member’s only real purpose is to hamstring government action; government therefore does not end up exercising controls, and the private sector is free to manifest outcomes that benefit only a few.

Government has become a polarized battlefield over how to manifest our collective ideals as a nation, as states, counties and cities. This central conflict about the role of government makes up a lot of the political tensions we see in Sonoma. Politician’s dysfunction then falls out onto city staff, and alienated citizens, looking for someone to blame, conflate all as “government”, and finger staff as the culprit.

Here we have a collective entity, city government, that is supposed to manifest the will of the people, to do the people’s business, yet the people themselves are riven with such conflict and opposing interests, morals and values, that no clear direction can be taken. This kind of paralysis can’t help but effect the appearance of staff as taking sides, and staff’s ability to appear efficacious. Societal fractures effect all. It’s a paralysis of constant conflict. Into this void of clear direction, staff maybe has more leeway to subtly mold outcomes, as there is no clear majority direction, and special interests have more sway to capitalize on the systemic chaos.

In this sense, we don’t so much have a do-nothing council, we have a polarized populace that elects a slate of representatives that can’t possibly work and act together on big serious issues of government action. Appeals, lawsuits, cease and desist orders, and systemic disagreements are the result.

The growing trend of hyper-partisanship is reflected by the ideology and politics of elected officials and council-appointed commissioners. Staff then, has to assess the politics and power relations, and act accordingly to preserve their positions and to enact policy that fits the current masters, even if the shifting three vote majority changes and does not have a consistent clarity.

The city manager’s job is to impose some objective order on this field of wild and untamed interests. If the Sonoma populace were all the creatures on the Serengeti Plain, the city manager’s almost unmanageable job is to give them all a fair stake.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>