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No mistake about it – Dixon system broke

Published: Saturday, July 20, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

Dixon citizens might be confused – maybe “perplexed” is a better word – as to why some members of the city council would be reluctant to yield their somewhat-supervisory, almost-administrative duties in whatever new form of government organization the city might adopt.

Under the current “commission” form, each council member – and the mayor – is tasked with overseeing a specific area of city government operation, such as streets, public safety, or finance.

Those assignments of responsibility are made after the council and mayor are elected every 4 years. Because candidates are required to have virtually no qualifications – aside from age and residency – to be elected, the part-time government amateurs who get the most votes often bring no significant experience or knowledge in the professional areas they are assigned to oversee.

And even if council members sometimes bring expertise to their assigned areas of oversight, that is no guarantee the same will be true of those elected in the future. In fact, it’s a sure bet that such expertise will not be maintained, election after election, in every area.

We understand that if the system isn’t broken, it doesn’t need to be fixed. But does anyone think that the developments in city government over the past 15 months have failed to prove conclusively that the system is broken?

No evidence suggests that a full-time manager or administrator – or even a full-time mayor – over the past two decades would have guaranteed that the city comptroller couldn’t steal $54 million, or that the city engineer couldn’t accumulate thousands of dollars in non-reimbursed personal expenses on a city-issued credit card.

But we suspect that such things would have been much less likely to have gone on under the nose of a professional manager or administrator who is trained and experienced in the operations of municipal government – and whose full-time responsibility is focused on that job.

As the council – and voters – ponder a new form of city government administration, the role of the council, and its individual members, is a key consideration.

In that regard, we have two suggestions for consideration.

First, we like council members to be focused on the role of representative, not trustee. That is, we believe a council member’s primary job should be to represent the interests of the community and its residents on all matters, rather than to act as a quasi-manager in a discipline that is likely to be outside the individual councilor’s skill set or experience.

And second, we believe council members should be elected by districts, rather than at-large, to ensure a geographic balance of representation, which the current council does not have. That’s not to say at-large council members don’t consider the interests of all sectors of the city. But district representatives would be more sensitive to their own neighborhood concerns and more likely to advocate for under-served citizens.

Dixon’s current commission form of government, which voters approved more than a century ago, apparently met a need at the time. But municipal administration is much more complex more than a decade into the 21st century. Consider the growth of government regulation from the state and federal levels, changes in city employee insurance and benefits, the legal requirements of competitive bidding for procuring services and supplies, and the fact that the police and fire departments these days get around in motorized vehicles.

Yes, this is a different world from 1911, when 56 percent of the city’s voters (no, it wasn’t unanimous) chose to abandon the mayor-council form of government in favor of a city commission.

Any city that hopes to operate efficiently and effectively in this era must professionalize its administration – and broaden its reach to all citizens – in ways that Dixon’s current commission form does not allow.

Dixon’s citizens must hope – and expect – that it gets fixed.

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