With all the political turmoil flooding into our living rooms these days, take a moment and imagine what good governance would look like.
Visualize governance in which citizens are calmly heard and their voices make a difference. Picture public services delivered quietly and efficiently and any interruption promptly remedied. Envision government largely immune from the political chaos, partisan divides and ideological battles occurring across the U.S. and throughout the globe.
Take a look around at the cities and counties in Kansas that are governed by locally elected officials in combination with professionally trained managers and celebrate with me the 100-year anniversary of this good government model.
This quiet revolution in local governance began in Wichita in 1917. Led by progressive reformer Henry Allen, publisher of the Wichita Beacon and later governor, a coalition of business and professional leaders secured state authorizing legislation that allowed cities to place the administration of the city in the hands of a qualified manager, rather than elected officials.
Wichita voters adopted this new form of city government without delay and made Wichita one of the first larger cities in the nation to do so. El Dorado voters followed suit the same year. Other Kansas jurisdictions steadily embraced the change.
Since 1917, voters in 60 of the state’s larger cities have adopted what often is referred to as the “council-manager form” of city government. An elected city council in these cities appoints a city manager who serves “at the pleasure of” the council. State statutes prescribe that the city manager shall be “chosen solely upon the basis of administrative ability.”
City councils in 85 additional cities, mostly mid-sized, have adopted a hybrid of the council-manager plan and created the position of city administrator to advise the mayor and council and conduct the administrative business of the city.
These city managers and administrators most often have experience and preparation in management, finance and public policy, and have broad authority to carry out city ordinances, appoint and discipline employees, prepare a budget and make recommendations “on all matters concerning the welfare of the city.”
In addition, county commissioners in 20 Kansas counties, mostly larger counties, have established the position of county administrator with duties and qualifications that mirror those of city managers.
Today, roughly four of every five Kansans live in a city or county served by these local managers. Without fanfare, they provide daily oversight of police and fire protection, water supply and wastewater management, local roads and streets, parks and recreation, public health and other essential functions. They actively promote the quality of life and encourage economic growth in their communities. We take their largely invisible work for granted.
These managers are not flawless. They are human and do make mistakes, but with rare exception these are quickly corrected. However, if a local manager loses the confidence of community residents and the governing body, that manager will be removed.
True, these local managers do not have to contend with global issues of war and peace. Or fixing Obamacare. Or solving school finance. But they confront the impact of globalization in their communities. Advise on issues of taxing, spending and borrowing. Address matters relating to diversity and poverty that affect their constituencies. Contribute to the resolution of difficult community conflicts. They move their respective jurisdictions forward in rhythm with local voters and elected officials.
So celebrate with me the century mark for this Kansas experiment in good governance. Well done, and full speed ahead.
H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University.