Manager: Don’t politicize leadership

Interim City Manager Peter Marshall did his best Monday to dissuade the Altoona Government Study Commission from “politicizing” the city’s operational leadership.

He succeeded in inspiring a clarification in the home rule charter the commission is nearly finished drafting that may bring it closer to what Marshall recommends.

Marshall has served as manager in home rule municipalities for 35 years, all governed on the corporate manager-council model – designed to ensure professional-style operations – that Altoona has employed for 25 years.

The strong mayor-council form – elements of which are in the commission’s draft charter – is modeled after the federal and state governments and sets up the potential for internal conflict, according to Marshall.

It can work “if you’re lucky,” and the city elects a mayor with strong management skills and municipal government experience, and if City Council is forward-looking and there isn’t debilitating strife between the two, according to Marshall.

It also helps if the mayor is a member of the party in power in Harrisburg, he said.

But there’s no guarantee enough of those favorable conditions will prevail, he said.

Good mayors don’t always get re-elected and bad ones can get re-elected repeatedly, he said.

“Harrisburg had a very popular mayor who was elected term after term,” he said. “Unfortunately, he sunk the ship.”

And the outcome of internal strife “is very evident in the federal government,” he said.

Marshall has no problem with having a mayor work full-time, with commensurate pay.

But he has a problem with the mayor appointing and firing the city manager, even if it’s with “the advice and consent” of council, and with a majority of council required to approve the manager’s appointment and hiring, Marshall told the commission.

“(The manager) is the mayor’s man,” he said.

As such, the manager could be in the middle of contention between the mayor and council.

“You’ve (taken the council-manager system) that is the fastest growing system in the U.S.,” he said. “And made it political.”

The National Civic League and the International City Manager’s Association recommend that city managers shouldn’t be under the direction of the mayor or a single council member – but under the direction of council as a whole, Marshall said.

Marshall’s observations showed that the current charter wording needs reworked so it’s clear that while it’s preferable for the mayor to take the lead in proposing a candidate for manager – or in firing the manager – council ought to be able to do so on its own, if it wishes, either by a simple majority or a super-majority, according to commission Chairman Wayne Hippo and Vice Chairman Richard Fiore.

He meant for it to be that way, Hippo said afterwards.

Marshall’s advice also helped crystallize the commission’s thinking on the position of elected city controller.

Marshall recommended abolishing it, saying it’s a holdover from the old “political model,” a post designed to “keep tabs” on the mayor or council.

There are plenty of checks and balances without the post that makes it unnecessary, he said.

After a motion to abolish the post failed narrowly, the commission voted unanimously to accept Fiore’s proposal – crafted with the help of Richard Flarend – to make a non-elected post of controller optional for council, one that could be fulfilled either by hiring an employee or an accounting firm, like the post of solicitor.

The commission will hold a hearing for public comment on the draft charter at 7 p.m. Monday at the Devorris Downtown Center.

There will be presentations from a few community groups, probably including Altoona Blair County Development Corp. and Amtran.

The commission will consider the comments and presentations as it finishes the charter within the next seven weeks or so.

The charter will go to referendum in November.

If approved by voters, it will go into effect in January, although it

wouldn’t be fully effective until January 2016.

For example, candidates for the new post of strong mayor would run in the 2015 primary and general elections, but not take office until the following year.

A transition committee consisting of three commission members appointed by Hippo and two council members appointed by council will help put the charter into practice.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.