John Pryor

John Pryor

With the imminent retirement of City Manager Alan Tandy, many (myself included) have suggested this as a propitious time to reconsider our city’s form of government.

Our choices are either the council-manager form or the mayor-council form. According to our city’s website, we currently operate under the council-manager form in which “the city council oversees the city’s general administration, adopts policy and sets the budget; the council appoints a professional city manager to conduct day-to-day administrative operations; and the mayor is elected by all city voters for a four-year term with minimal authority, minimal salary and minimal votes (only to break a tie — a rare occurrence) — plus ‘ceremonial purposes.’”

This is a hybrid form because the traditional council-manager form includes selection of the mayor from among elected council members on a rotating basis, not elected by city voters. (Kern County’s Board of Supervisors follows this traditional form.) This hybrid is good! It implies the structure is designed for Bakersfield’s unique needs.

An elected mayor is typical of the mayor-council form, with either weak or (usually) strong powers granted to the mayor.

(In the perception of some, we have had a strong manager form of government. Others disagree, as do I.)

From a business perspective, serious omissions are found. Most obvious is the absence of mission, vision and values statements — all essential leadership elements of any organization, public or private. (The County of Kern has mission and vision statements but evidently no values statement.)

More subtle is the council’s focus on city ordinances, compliance with state statutes, etc. However, that doesn’t mean city leadership should not also focus on a strategic plan, viz., not only adopt mission, vision and values statements but also long-term strategic goals plus annual operational objectives.

Kern County has adopted both long-term strategic goals as well as multiple annual operational objectives to accomplish each strategic goal.

However, none is measurable. None is time-bound. Each should be both. (Unlike operational objectives, long-term strategic goals typically are more qualitative than quantitative.)

What a strategic plan adds is the critically important notion of visionary leadership.

Our city council is perceived by many to be reactively focused on current challenges and controversies, which is its role, but the council is not focused on its concurrent need to envision “from 30,000 feet” what is emerging just over the horizon for our city in terms of opportunities, problems, threats, etc.

This enables the council to proactively respond to such challenges.

No one in our community wants our city to miss important opportunities, nor to mitigate (if not eliminate) problems and threats coming down the pike.

At the same time, none of us wants our mayor and council members to get bogged down in micromanagement of city staff. Such “ground level” issues are for the city manager and city departments to address — within city council policies, of course. Should an issue emerge that is not already addressed by council policies, it should be referred for council approval before implementation.

This is a major distinction between leadership and management. We elect our mayor and city council members as leaders to envision and address our needs and opportunities viewed from 30,000 feet. Our city manager is appointed by the city council to address operational issues at ground level.

Including visionary leadership within the council’s focus is what is needed.

Therefore, there’s no need to amend our municipal charter, nor even to adopt any new ordinance. However, a new council policy may be needed to require a strategic planning process to be conducted and monitored each year.

On this basis, our city’s hybrid form of government with a “weak mayor” seems to be the proper model.

Any new city manager should fit in equally well. A “strong mayor”— and its added costs — need not be budgeted.

The addition of formal strategic planning should not only make our city’s current form of government more effective and productive but also proactive and visionary!

Now is the moment to take this critical step forward!

At the same time, every business in Kern County should do no less.

John Pryor, CPCU, ARM, AAI, AIS is a management consultant with CSU Bakersfield’s Small Business Development Center. More information is available at www.csub.edu/sbdc.

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