Keeping commissioners in their own lane
Over the years, Birmingham city commissioners have occasionally overstepped their boundaries – coming into City Hall, both literally and figuratively, requesting information that is not on an agenda or in an agenda packet, directly from staff members, whether the planning director, city clerk, treasurer, police chief or individuals in their departments, and expecting it to be reported back to them, irrespective of the city employees' other responsibilities.
Several commissioners have also, especially in recent years, taken to attending board and committee meetings, supposedly to “learn what is going on in the community.” However, commissioners appoint board and committee members, so commissioners attending meetings of boards and committee meetings creates an inherent conflict and could make those members feel beholden to specific commissioners. As it happens, commissioners receive reports on what transpires at all the other boards and committees – so they do know what is going on in the city.
Birmingham has a city manager form of government, where commissioners approve policy and related actions by the city manager. But the city manager runs the city on a day to day basis. Period.
Now, a new Birmingham city policy has officially stated what some city officials, staffers and board members have privately been saying for a while: city commissioners, stay in your own lane.
Birmingham City Manager Tom Markus, who knows city government quite well, having previously been city manager for Birmingham for 22 years, leaving in 2010 for Iowa City, Iowa, and then Lawrence, Kansas, before returning back to Birmingham for another stint last January 1, 2021, sought city attorney Mary Kucharek's legal opinion. Kucharek said the question was posed whether it’s advisable for city commissioners to personally attend various boards and committees of the city. She looked into case law and the Open Meetings Act, and determined it's best for commissioners to stay out.
“When you have appointment power of those that serve on the boards, your presence carries with it the weight of your appointment powers, and your presence could be causing duress or seen as causing influence or pressure to those at these meetings,” Kucharek noted.
Markus advised commissioners that all questions should come directly to him – not staff, not boards – and he will prioritize them and provide answers. He especially urged commissioners to refrain from contacting city staff directly with questions, as it can cause confusion or unintended influence on staff.
Markus also advised city commissioners that it does not make for good management of the city to constantly receive special requests from individual commissioners – as a governing body, there should be consensus when the city commission wants the city manager to tackle some new issue. Basic management principle.
While commissioner Brad Host objected to the new policy, and along with new commissioner Andrew Haig, voted against it, stating he feels members of other boards feel “unappreciated and that they have no connection to the city,” there are no board incidents to validate that statement. The resolution wisely passed, and is now policy, and commissioners are on notice.
City commissioners should view themselves as board members of a public company – leaders who direct the president or CEO, but then step out of the way to allow the company to do its work.