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Oct 21st
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Written by Jay Beskin, BT Contributor   
October 2017

It’s time for city manager term limits

JPix_JayBeskin_10-17ust the other day I had occasion to hear Carly Fiorina speak about experiences she culled from her first career. Yes, before she embarked on her more recent path of running for things ineffectively, she had quite a long vocation running things quite effectively.

She was CEO of Hewlett Packard from 1999 to 2005, after leading several divisions at Lucent Technologies. I don’t know if she has something unique to contribute to the political world, but I’d say she has an authoritative voice in the realm of personnel management.

In fact, this was one of her top takeaways from her successful life in the business world: Don’t allow anyone to hold the same management position for too many years.

She argues convincingly that holding “tenure” beyond eight or ten years leads to a whole laundry list of troubles. Ten-year tenure is her alliterative max. She noted that the two-term limit on the presidency and many governorships has served the country well.

This is not exactly the (also alliterative) Peter Principle, explained in a satirical book of the same title published in 1968 by the late Laurence Peter, professor of education at USC. According to the Peter Principle: “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”

In other words, an employee who excels at one level will inevitably be promoted to another, and promoted and promoted, until finally comes the promotion to a position for which he or she is completely ill-suited and incompetent. This doesn’t mean the person is fired; colleagues tend to work around these people. Rather it means that in time, all managerial positions are filled with incompetents -- which gives us the phenomenon of bad people in top jobs.

The Fiorina Fiat goes even further: It says that promotions aside, someone doing a good job at the same job for a long time will begin to do a bad job. A toxic cocktail of boredom and complacency -- or resentment, if a promotion has been sought and denied -- turns our upwardly mobile striver into a laterally immobile sitter.

What’s the solution? Either promote them and risk Peter -- or prod them into taking a similar position somewhere else, parlaying their good years here into a few more bucks over there.

This bit of wisdom is timely for me to hear just now, as a longtime resident of Aventura, and a former city councilman. It reinforced my own decision to campaign for term limits, thereby mandating my retirement after two terms.

Believe it or not, there is life after public service. The City of Excellence, duly holding elections, has been rotating officials at a tolerable pace.

But not all power is concentrated in those changing hands. The city manager slot, for example, is an appointed position, not an elected one, and its current occupant, Eric Soroka, just announced his retirement.

After how long was he in office, you ask? Well, would you hazard a guess? Here’s a clue: The national average of tenure for city managers is five years. And where does Soroka show up on the chart in relation to that average? So let’s do this like Jeopardy.

You: “Okay, Alex, I’ll take Cities with Names that are Supposed to Sound Spanish but Are Really Self-Explanatory Because the Spanish Word Is Almost Like the English, for 800 please.”

Alex: “And the answer is ‘Longevity of Eric Soroka as City Manager of Aventura.’”

You: And the question is (cue up “Final Jeopardy” music): “What is 21?”

Twenty-one, Alex? Did I hear that right? Over four times the nation average?

Yes, indeed, our version of excellence makes short shrift of the Fiorina Fiat. Our manager has managed to manage our city for over 4 x 5 years.

Should we be amazed or aghast? That’s hard to say.

First let us consider the argument -- what some might call the dodge -- against the Fiorina Fiat. This view claims that keeping the manager in place for many years enables him or her to gain more experience year after year, presumably bursting with new knowledge.

This approach doesn’t see experience as undermining innovation. No fear of someone in 2017 running an office with 1996 methods. We can give Aventura the benefit of the doubt on this one and posit some nimbleness, at least on the technological side. No, we don’t get a picture of the Mummy or something emerging from his sarcophagus to encounter a changed world. (Although he came close to walking out and getting a “yes” answer to the question “Is the President still Clinton?”)

The other optimistic case some make is that the manager learns over time what we residents want to see, so he tends to be good about giving us what we want. No big disappointments. What you (want to) see is what you get.

This is presented as a sort of virtue, but to me it still smells of vice. It conjures up a picture of a guy going along to get along, doing just enough, not rocking the boat on one hand and not pushing the envelope on the other. To be honest, I don’t buy it. My sense is that Fiorina is on target this time.

Incidentally, I’m not buttressing my case by citing specific complaints against Soroka. I worked with him, and there’s no bad blood between us. But the idea of the permanent bureaucrat who presides immovably over generations of elected politicians, just sounds too…well, too J. Edgar Hoover for me.

Significantly, city government is constructed in a way that makes an overlong tenure as city manager more pernicious. This is because sunshine laws prohibit council members from contacting city offices directly. If I’m on the city council, I can’t call the Water Department with input. I must work through the city manager to avoid any impression that I’m twisting the water guy’s arm.

This sounds good and virtuous in general terms, as a strategy to prevent the city into breaking up into fiefdoms, each dominated by the neighborhood council member. But it also means that elected officials are being managed by the manager, instead of the other way around.

Having an unelected potentate sit in the manager’s office for a quarter of a century is a very poor idea indeed. Even if Soroka were the exception, he still proves the rule.

Going forward, I’d recommend an ordinance limiting these appointments to the national average term of five years. Even if managers jump from city to city, they’ll be incentivized away from the stale to the fresh. There’s no reason for the City of Excellence to be run by an unelected His Excellency!

 

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