The effects of change

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category icon Columns, Opinion

About midway through a 40-plus year management career, I became interested in the phenomenon of organizational change. I learned that people don’t necessarily resist change, but do resist the way change affects them personally.

The proposal to convert Washougal from a strong mayor to a council-manager type of municipal government portends the type of change that begets both benefits and difficulties. Among the latter are the effects it will have on current and future council members and candidates, as well as the city administrator.

I leave to others the task of making the case for change. My focus in this editorial is on the effects the proposed change would have on the job of the city council, and the qualifications needed for the job. These issues deserve consideration during the debate.

Under a council-manager government, council members’ duties change significantly. As a group, they would be responsible to oversee the performance of the city manager. That drastic change in level of responsibility suggests the need for a new skill set.

An ideally suited council member who is overseeing the city manager would have managerial training and experience, and familiarity with basic methods for ensuring accountability, including accounting, performance evaluation, contract management, and performance metrics. While council members under the strong mayor system can acquire these types of qualifications on the job because they have the luxury of having a mayor responsible for directly supervising the city administrator, council members under a council-manager government would need to come to their new task already equipped with the knowledge and abilities required to properly supervise the city manager.

Failure to have council members equipped with necessary skill sets opens up the possibility of inadequate supervision of the administrative authority in the council-manager form of government. Not an encouraging prospect. Some Washington cities and counties are using the council-manager form of government have had to deal with such difficult situations.

The council-manager form would also place a premium on conflict management skills. Despite their differing philosophical outlooks, council members would have to convey a united front when communicating policy direction to the city manager. Failure to do so leaves the city manager with inadequate or confusing policy direction. The city manager may respond either by doing nothing until the council sorts its priorities out, or by substituting his own judgment. It is a difficult position for a city manager and suggests the possibility of poor results.

Not being managed by knowledgeable council members would be almost as bad as being micro-managed. Even though the council is responsible to the voters for outcomes, they must resist the temptation to interfere in the day-to-day management of the city. Avoiding this pitfall requires knowledge of performance evaluation and metrics, and a focus on outcomes rather than activities. The city manager may not do it the way various council members would do it, but if he gets the required results the council should be satisfied.

My concern about the qualifications and role of council members is heightened by a general distrust I have of so called “experts.” The council-manager form of government is a variation on the theme of trusting “experts” to run things. I have a natural suspicion of people who are supposedly smarter and better qualified than the average citizen. The qualifications listed above are well within the reach of most citizens who are willing to invest the effort to acquire them, even if such skills are not prevalent in the general population. Which brings me to my last concern about the new qualifications needed for council members.

Because the qualifications above take time and effort to acquire, they are generally available in a smaller portion of the population than our current council member qualifications. The pool of potential council members, therefore, is smaller under a council-manager form of government. Given our past difficulty in recruiting and retaining council members, a smaller pool from which to recruit is not encouraging.

I will be interested to hear the input from the public, the administration, and my fellow council members. It should be an interesting debate, and one with significant consequences for our city.

We need to hear from you. Not all council members have made up their minds on this topic.

Although public comment is solicited twice during each council meeting, the town hall scheduled for 9 a.m. on Saturday, June 29 at City Hall may offer the best opportunity for public input. I look forward to seeing you there.

Dave Shoemaker is a member of the Washougal City Council. He can be reached at 210-4654 or