Council weighs shifting budget, hiring authority

December 12, 2013

Photo courtesy T. Carter Ross.

BY SUSIE CURRIE — City Administrator Jerry Schiro’s resignation becomes final this month, and the search for his replacement is well underway. But even as the city moved closer to choosing his successor, the city council considered changing his job description during a special meeting on November 25.

The state has four basic forms of municipal government, according to the Maryland Municipal League (MML), and endless combinations of them. They are Council-Manager, Strong Mayor-Council, Weak Mayor-Council and Commissioner. The differences lie in the division of powers.

The meeting was billed as a presentation by International City/County Management Association (ICMA) speaker Patrick Prangley “on various forms of municipal government and best practices,” according to the motion sponsored by Council President Candace Hollingsworth (Ward 1).

For the most part, though, Prangley focused on the form he knew best: council-manager, in which the city council serves as the legislative and policy arm of government and a city manager supervises all departments as well as day-to-day operations. The mayor presides over council meetings but has mostly ceremonial duties.

Prangley was the city manager of Riverdale Park for 31 years and Berwyn Heights for two before joining ICMA. (His mother, Mary, served on the Hyattsville City Council for 22 years, the last four as mayor.)

“Most municipalities draw elements from more than one form of government,” said MML Director of Research Jim Peck. “If you think of mayoral powers as a continuum, at one end is the strongest of the strong mayors. The mayor is the CEO, oversees day-to-day operations and has veto power.  In this case, a council is a policymaking body only.”

On the other end of the spectrum, he said, is the council-manager form of government. “The city manager is CEO, overseeing day-to-day operations. The manager hires and fires department heads and works with staff to create a budget. The mayor is more of a figurehead, with no more power than anyone else on the council.”

The Hyattsville charter says that “the City Administrator, the Mayor and the appointed Department Heads … may give direct orders to City employees.”

In essence, that means that employees have three bosses, which has led to problems. “Everyone up here on the dais understands the problem with competing authority,” said Ward 2 Councilmember Shani Warner.

“It’s kind of a hybrid here,” said Prangley. “The city administrator is allowed to do certain things, but without hiring and firing power. … What I see as the real drawback [to Hyattsville’s structure] is that there are operational issues that come up all the time. “With a city manager, the responsibilities are centralized in one person.”

He also emphasized that city managers are “highly trained professionals” with experience in managing budgets as well as day-to-day operations.

Schiro agreed, saying that he had worked under a variety of scenarios,”I agree with Mr. Prangley that it’s the most effective form of government. The operation of the city is the city manager’s profession and full-time employment. … You [councilmembers] have day jobs, and that’s why you hire a city manager.”

Former mayor Bill Gardiner said that Hyattsville is “generally considered to be a strong mayor form of government, but it’s more of a hybrid. The mayor is CEO, introduces a budget and can direct all staff. I don’t think it’s necessary for the mayor to have the authority to direct all staff. A city manager, rather than a city administrator, would have a far greater role in the hiring and firing of department directors — as well as increased responsibility for their performance.”

A city manager would also be responsible for drafting an annual budget instead of the mayor. The city charter appears to be open to interpretation on that duty, giving it to both the city administrator (“Prepare and submit to the Mayor by May of each year a proposed budget for the City”) and the mayor (” … “submit a budget to the Council …  at least 32  days before the beginning of any fiscal year”).

Councilmembers had several questions about budget authority, mentioning last year’s bruising process more than once.

“Is there a way we can define the powers more? Yes,” said City Attorney Richard Colaresi. “I would say you already have most of it, and it needs to be fine tuned.”

Colaresi praised the Hyattsville’s “culture [and] personality,” cautioning against wholesale changes to the charter.

“I’ve been in and out of lots of different municipalities,” said Colaresi. But the civic interest, the amount of brainpower that goes into solving your problems is enormous and I don’t know your like anywhere.”