Saturday, May 4, 2013

How to Organize City Hall

During the Charter Commission meetings, the question has repeatedly come up of how to organize the work at city hall. More specifically, how many and what departments of city government are needed in Plainfield? 

The current arrangement is not based on current needs but on arrangements of the past, sometimes as a Mayoral workaround when the City Council has been uncooperative and sometimes to create or preserve someones job. Bernice Paglia, our best historian of local government, has made this point effectively. 

I remember when the City Council refused to give consent to Mayor Al McWilliams' senior management nominations.  He juggled a few job titles and positions in an attempt to create a semblance of the the management team he wanted.  That refusal to grant him his team appalled me and was what helped me resolve my ambivalence about running for City Council.

The most recent reorganization at city hall was the elimination of the police chief position and creation of police director.  These initiatives were done without need of charter revision. 

The City Charter should set general parameters for the organization of departments but not be prescriptive.  Conditions change.  We are entering a phase of local government where shared services, consolidation of local government entities and outsourcing of non core services will become more common.  We might not want a lot of departments.  We might want to shift which divisions and offices report to which departments. 

The result of the June Mayoral primary will tell us something about direction.  Our current Mayor has not been responsive to suggestions for shared services and outsourcing.  A new administration may be different. Regardless of who wins this time around, the long term view is that the face of municipal government will change.

Here are some ideas for Plainfield:
  • outsource Plainfield Action Services to Union County Department of Human Services, the United Way and the Urban League, one or a combination of these organizations,
  • outsource the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC) to the Neighborhood Health Services Corporation (aka Plainfield Health Center) or another healthcare provider,
  • doing the above would make the Department of Administration and Finance more manageable and its department head would not need such an unrealistically diverse skill set (which is impossible to find),
  • implement Martin Hellwigs idea for civilian Police and Fire Directors reporting to the City Administrator
Any changes will affect city employees and must be done with careful planning and respect for their job security.  Disruption can be minimized by timing changes with retirements, requiring new service providers to have Plainfield offices and setting outsourcing requirements to protect the jobs of current employees.

When we outsourced Dudley House, people in city hall (some suspect the Mayor) spread misinformation that brought concerned advocates to City Council meetings.  However, the deed was done and accommodations were made for some employees.  Most importantly, the people needing Dudley House services now receive better services from a highly regarded, state licensed substance abuse treatment agency, Sunrise House.  They have been more effective than city hall in generating revenues and not just depending on Plainfield taxpayers. Dudley House is a lesson for us about what we can do in the future.

Mayors and City Councils need some flexibility to reorganize government operations to meet the needs of the people.  The Charter should provide just enough structure, checks and balances so there is no free for all silliness with every new Mayor and administration.  But not so much that there is no room to change.

1 comment:

Dottie Gutenkauf said...

Cory, what you left out about Dudley House--and what brought so many people, including me, to protest--was that the city was talking about CLOSING this very successful and effective service, not "outsourcing" it. There is a back story which you may not be aware of.