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Should Smithfield’s city manager have so much power? Residents have their say

March 10th, 2010 Posted in Opinion

By Safiyyah Ballard

SMITHFIELD–There was no change made to Smithfield’s form of municipal government after a public hearing last night at the Senior Citizen Center.

“Obviously, we won’t vote on this tonight,” said Mayor Darrell Simmons. “We, the council, are going to take some more time to review this. It will be put on an agenda and we will discuss this.”

Simmons said the purpose of this meeting was to define the structure and framework of the Smithfield form of government. “This public hearing is a two-way street. It’s a time for the council to hear from the people and it is also a time for the people to hear from the council.”

Councilman Mike Oliverson gave a presentation on the historical background of the ordinance. “Utah Senate Bill 20 was the vehicle to help us move ahead,” he said. “The bill became law in 2008 and a lot of cities became concerned about their form of governing being out of compliance,”

Oliverson said the bill grandfathered in the current form of government of Utah towns and cities, giving them the option to change.

“Under the direction of Mayor Chad Downs, a committee was formed to review current government ordinances and study Utah Senate Bill 20,” Oliverson said. He was a part of this committee that decided the six-member council form of government was the best fit for Smithfield.

“This form of government naturally fit based on how were operating then and in the past. There was a lot of work done to ensure we were in compliance with the Senate bill.” Oliverson said the ordinance was made available to the public last summer to make input and some of those inputs were included in the ordinance. “We [the committee] appreciated the public input and the document went back to the county attorney for legal review.”

“In some Utah cities, if the council didn’t get along with the mayor, they’d appoint a city manager and give him all the power. There were citizens upset that the city council or city manager had too much power, or that the mayor had none,” said City Attorney Bruce Jorgensen. “The change is to go to a six-member council that has a city manager position that is created by council through ordinance. This has been an effort to work together.”

Councilman Brent Buttars said he encountered several citizens that thought the city council was dissolved through the creation of the city manager position. “I was shocked that there were people that didn’t realize that we meet twice a month and vote. There’s still a lot of misinformation out there, but I hope we cleared that up. The committee did a super job.”

Councilwoman Barbara Kent was also a member of that committee. “We really did go line by line through that Senate bill to make sure we lined up. There is not a legal description of a city manager or city administrator, so as a municipality, you decide.”

Kent said the committee chose to use “may” instead of “shall” in the ordinance to allow for power to remain with the people. “The consent of the governed is so important. Because we [the council] are elected every two years, the city manager is accountable to the people as well. Every two years, you have an opportunity to say ‘we want someone new.’”

Mayor Simmons gave citizens three minutes each to address their concerns or suggestions about the ordinance. “Just be respectful,” said Simmons .

Jeff Barnes suggested the ordinance delegate more power to the mayor. “The citizens elect a CEO in the mayor, but the city manager has a lot of responsibilities. The mayor should have those responsibilities and just delegate them to the manager.”

Jeff Strait echoed this concern. “My main concern is the concept of delegating so much authority to an un-elected official. I am concerned about the number of hats he wears that create a conflict of interest.”

Linda Gittins suggested that the council form another citizen committee to help the council review ordinances that pertain to powers, duties and responsibilities. “The many hats worn by one person [the city manager] diminish the checks and balances in Smithfield. The many duties currently held by the city manager need to be redistributed and balanced so that others can be trained in preparation for his retirement.”

She pointed out that the city engineer gives storm water management permits and the city manager handles the appeals for the same permits. “By appointment, they are the same person and make it impossible to get a fair appeal.”

She also addressed the Major and Minor Subdivision, which are reviewed by the Water Authority, Sewer Authority, City Engineer and City Manager. “By appointment the city manager is the city engineer, and by ordinance the city engineer is the water authority and sewer authority, so plans are only reviewed by one person.”

She said immediate changes will make the transition to a new city manager a more comfortable process for city council when they advertise and interview candidates. “Councilman Mike Oliverson has some great ideas on the principle of modification, which means looking into our current resources, personnel, and budget to make changes first. “

Jeff Gittins pointed out that the city had distributed the wrong version of the ordinance up until last Friday. Mayor Simmons acknowledged that this was true and invited citizens to pick up a corrected version from the city office.

“This has been a long process that wouldn’t have been started without a push from the citizens,” Jeff Gittins said. He made several written suggestions to the council about mayoral duties, the city manager, recorder, and Justice Court judge, which he made available to council and citizens in attendance. In the two-page document, Jeff Gittins suggests the city manager be unable to review his own performance as city engineer. The document also suggests that no appointed person can serve as two or more appointed officers at any one time.

“Jeff, you’ve made a terrific effort to create this. We will review your suggestions and consider them,” Mayor Simmons said.

Mike Harris urged the council to use “may” instead of “shall” in the ordinance to allow for flexibility. “It leaves people no options.”

Don Beringer expressed concern about checks and balances. “This is the natural evolution of the growth we’ve been experiencing. We just want representation that’s accountable to the voters.”

Former Smithfield Mayor Ray Wynn said the city manager should have to live within the city. “I think they need to be here where they’re more responsible to the city. I don’t think you’d want Chief [of police] McCoy to live outside the city.” Wynn also said the mayor should have the authority to fire city employees.

City Manager Jim Gass, who was not at the public hearing, responded to questions via e-mail: “My situation is no different than anyone else’s in Smithfield; many people here wear many hats because of the responsibilities that need to be covered.”

Gass wrote that his role evolved at the urging of the mayor in the early 1990s and was formalized by the council with his appointment as city manager. He admitted that he will be difficult to replace. “Some of my responsibilities will need to be delegated to other city employees, which I have attempted to do over the years. I’ve been here for 27 years and have learned the roles as they have developed.” He said that the city may need to hire more than a city manager, but added that there are people stepping forward and taking on more responsibility.

“As far as preparation goes, this new ordinance will be very helpful, but there will be some tough decisions in the years to come because right now I don’t see anyone who is currently working for the city that could be groomed to step into the position,” he said. “That may change.”

In a phone interview, Mayor Simmons said the city manager often wears many hats. “If we were to break down the cost of what it would cost to hire all the different people in the positions Jim [Gass] fills, we couldn’t afford it. Jim is a licensed, award-winning engineer, building inspector, plumbing inspector and he has become educated in the many other ‘hats’ he has to wear.”

Simmons said he is conducting a study to explore the replacement costs for the city manager position. “Jim knows his job will eventually come to an end. He is of the age and tenure where he could be with us several more years. Replacing Jim will not be an overnight adjustment and we will be ready for the change.”

Simmons said the study will explore city manager qualifications, cross-training and taxpayer costs. “We can be critical of everything, and we do need to be critical in a judicious manner, but we need to be civil and realistic.

“We have a quality of life in Smithfield that, in my opinion, is unparalleled,” the mayor said. “We may be experiencing some growing pains, but that is how we grow.”

The City Council will meet tonight at 6:30 at the Smithfield City Office.


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