Throw open the doors

One observer took a light-hearted tack: “So are we looking at a complete meltdown of city government? If this was some foreign country, we would be sending in the Marines to help defend the embassy.”

Another, a conspiratorial one: “Council is saying, ‘Fire Lynn (Nordby) or we will abolish his position and put you in charge/accountable.’ Fork in the road for the Mayor. If Mayor keeps Nordby, Admististrator’s job abolished: Mayor in charge, City continues to melt down. Next election is run on ‘let’s change to a Council/City Manager form of government.”

Those were among the notes that came through the transom this past week, after reportage on the latest dispute between the city council and the administration. At issue: (ostensibly) the executive department budget, and whether the city needs a full-time administrator and personnel manager. After councilwoman Deborah Vann questioned funding for the administrator position at a budget workshop, council members called a closed-door “executive session” Monday with Mayor Darlene Kordonowy to discuss “personnel issues.” Nordby was specifically un-invited.

Afterwards, mouths were mum on what transpired in the smoke-filled room. Councilman Bill Knobloch said that the closed-door session was proper, and took issue with any

inference that the council might try to use budget cuts to lever Nordby out of a job. “The budget has raised some questions, but they are questions, nothing more,” Knobloch said. “(Personnel) is the mayor’s province, and we recognize that.”

At the same time, the legal restrictions on executive sessions make it clear that the meeting had to do specifically with Nordby, not the administrator’s position in general. And that some council members have wanted to see Nordby head down the road is about the worst-kept secret around, after a similar session last January in which (sources say) he was pointlessly called to account by new council members for his handling of an already-resolved personnel issue several years earlier.

For the record: The administrator and department heads serve at the pleasure of the mayor, not the council; Nordby has enjoyed the apparent support of both Kordonowy and predecessor Dwight Sutton. For its part, the council cannot make a “back-door firing,”

de-funding a position to cause an incumbent to resign.

So are we seeing an honest inquiry into city spending, or an upstart council over-reaching its legal grasp? Readers can connect the dots for themselves. But any legitimate discussion of the merits of top city positions must be held in the light of day – apart from the charged atmosphere of the budget season, and without any discussion of those currently holding the positions.

Why, then, the closed doors? Ask your council members.

A final thought – as one observer noted, those working so stridently for an “independent legislature” might consider the issue in reverse: “In ‘The New Separation of Powers,’ 113 Harv. L. Rev. 633 (2000), Prof. Bruce Ackerman of Yale first asks the question, ‘Separating power on behalf of what?’ He goes on to argue, among other points, for a professional civil service insulated from political forces to promote ‘fair and effective government’:

“‘The power to make laws must be separated from the power to implement them... Call it functional specialization, and its elaboration comes in three parts. The first emphasizes the congenital weaknesses of directly elected politicians. The more they intervene in the implementation of the laws, the less impartial, and the more ignorant, the implementation will become. Worse yet, the more time politicians spend on bureaucratic politics, the less they will devote to the lawmaking function that only they can legitimately exercise: the elaboration of basic values...

“‘If politicians are constantly involved in concrete disputes, they will respond by creating their own hyperpoliticized mini-bureaucracies. The result will be the worst of all possible worlds: decisions will be made not by seasoned statesmen or knowledgeable bureaucrats, but by callow flunkies eager to curry favor with their bosses and the special interests that support them.’”

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