If reelected, Mayor Tab Bowling said last week he’ll push for the next City Council in November to give him the authority to hire department heads, a power now held by the council.
“I believe that mayors should be the appointing authority for all directors,” Bowling said, except for the three that state law mandates be hired by the council: fire chief, police chief and city clerk. “In most cities our size, all other directors are hired by the mayor.”
One councilman called the mayor’s proposal “kingdom building,” and others were cool to the idea as well.
The proposal comes at a time when the effort to replace retired directors has been mired in controversy and delay. The council rejected the slate of candidates to replace Wally Terry as director of development, and the search is starting over. Efforts to replace Bruce Jones as director of Youth Services triggered allegations that the mayor and Human Resources director intentionally low-balled the candidate selected by a council majority during negotiations in an effort to give the position to the council’s second choice.
“ ‘Chaotic’ is a nice word for it,” Councilman Chuck Ard said of the DYS search.
One statewide law identifies mayors as the sole appointing authorities, meaning they have authority to hire directors and all other employees. Another law allows city councils to enact an ordinance naming the council as the entity that hires "officers," which is generally viewed as including department heads.
Decatur is unique in that a 1965 local law — passed by the Legislature but applicable only to Decatur — authorizes the City Council to designate itself or any official as the appointing authority with a simple resolution.
Every four years, the newly elected council holds an organizational meeting, and every four years the result is the same. Most recently in November 2016, the resolution stated that “the City Council reserves to itself the power of appointment to such department head positions,” and designates the mayor as appointing authority for all positions “other than department heads.”
The result is that directors answer to the mayor on day-to-day operations, but the City Council is solely responsible for hiring them and must approve their termination.
It’s not a typical arrangement for Alabama municipalities, and at least one student of governmental organization views it as inefficient.
“It’s just basic organizational theory that you don’t want to have someone hiring your employees, but then you have the responsibility of managing those employees. That’s just kind of a weird concept,” said Jim Buston, city manager of Auburn.
Buston has attended schools of government at Harvard, the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia. As city manager, he has exclusive hiring and firing authority over all city employees, including department heads.
“The only employee the council reviews is me. They can hire and fire the city manager,” he said. “Thinking of me personally, if I’m responsible for running the city but someone else was hiring all of my captains that are supposed to help me run the city, it would be very difficult for me to efficiently and effectively run a professional organization.”
Bowling said he has a good relationship with all of his department heads, but the potential for problems exists. As mayor he can’t hire a director, and he can only terminate a director with council approval. The council also controls each department’s budget.
“If (a department head) wanted to, they could make it pretty hard for a mayor,” Bowling said. “Other municipalities, they don’t deal with that. So Mayor (Tommy) Battle, Mayor (Paul) Finley, Mayor (Ronnie) Marks, they get to hire their directors,” he said of the mayors of Huntsville, Madison and Athens. The Florence mayor also has the authority to hire directors.
While Marks is the appointing authority for directors, he said he works closely with the council.
"After I make an appointment, I make sure that I talk with City Council members, and there have been times when I've even taken a resolution to support my appointment to the City Council. I don't have to do that, but I want it to be a working partnership," said Marks, who is president of the Alabama League of Municipalities.
He said he has considered asking council members if they would prefer to be the appointing authority for the heads of some departments, such as Parks and Recreation or Public Works.
Ard, who comes from a corporate background, said designating the mayor as appointing authority for department heads may be more efficient, but that’s not the only issue at play in municipal government.
“Certainly if you had a single person doing the hiring it would be faster, but with the council doing that hiring you get a much broader perspective as to what people are looking for,” Ard said. “Given that this person at the director level is going to be working both with the mayor and council, I think it’s important that both parties have input.”
There are downsides to City Council involvement, Ard said.
“I think (the mayor and council) ideally should be able to come to a consensus as to who is the best person for the particular job,” Ard said. “Unfortunately it does take a lot of time, and recently it’s just been ridiculous.”
Whether designating the mayor as appointing authority makes sense or not, Ard said it’s unlikely to happen given that some council members already object when they are left out of the process of paring down the total list of applicants to those who meet the posted qualifications for a position.
“I don’t think it has a prayer,” he said.
Drawbacks to mayoral power
Council President Paige Bibbee said designating the mayor as the appointing authority for directors would be a mistake.
“It’s a more transparent system when you have five people who can make the decision rather than one person. There could be a lot of favoritism there. I think council should have that authority,” she said.
Councilman Billy Jackson said making the mayor the appointing authority would create disruption, as every time a new mayor is elected they would be inclined to get rid of those directors perceived as loyal to the predecessor.
“We won’t have longevity in those directors because they become politically appointed positions. As soon as the next mayor comes in, they will clear the slate," he said. "How far are we set back as a city if they come in and say, ‘I don’t like any of these department heads’?”
He said a given mayor may not have human resources experience, and thus may be unqualified to hire department heads. Council members may also lack such experience, “but at least it’s a council of people, and there has to be some sort of agreement that this candidate is the most qualified.”
“We’re elected in Decatur not by our ability but by popularity,” Jackson said of the mayor and council members. “When we’re elected based on popularity, sometimes we can get some really underqualified people serving in elected positions. … If we get a mayor who is not capable of doing his or her job and that person is responsible for selecting department heads, how can citizens have confidence that this one political figure will select qualified people to fill these very important positions?”
Jackson said he was disappointed Bowling suggested the change.
“It’s almost irritating that this guy has suggested this,” Jackson said. “When a mayor wants to change it so they have autonomy as the appointing authority, that could be them wanting to make sure things go exactly as they say.
“I’m bothered by the fact we have someone who wants to do kingdom building."