Robbins, Carthage Schooled on Town Government
Carthage and Robbins went to school Wednesday, or the school came to them.
Boards of both towns, their town managers, along with police officers, fire chiefs and others sat down together for a lesson in how to work under the manager/council charter both now use.
They didn't have to go to Chapel Hill for the class. The School of Government came to them. Carl Stenberg, director of the University of North Carolina's Master of Arts in Public Administration program, came down to Carthage for the joint session on running towns with this kind of charter.
Robbins changed its charter last year to a manager/council form. It is the same kind of charter Carthage and other Moore County towns, such as Southern Pines and Pinehurst, have had for years. Robbins' administrator of public works, Brant Sikes, became the city's first manager.
"This was the single-most important change the town of Robbins ever made," said Mayor Theron Bell.
Both towns have new mayors. The November election moved Bell from a commissioner's seat to mayor. Ronnie Fields, a longtime Carthage commissioner, became mayor following the unexpected death of the previous mayor, William C. Walton.
Bell was enthusiastic about the difference Sikes made to Robbins. Board members used to have to handle every aspect of town life, including hiring and firing employees -- some of whom were old friends or neighbors or members of the same church as commissioners. When Sikes came on board, he professionalized the business of running the town. Employees of Robbins and Carthage are hired by, report to, and are evaluated by managers in both towns.
"I will say this much -- I love it," Bell said. "We did things before that caused problems. We (council members) are not professionals. Having to fire someone was excruciatingly painful. You are firing somebody's brother or sister. It was really good to have someone run the business of the town professionally."
Stenberg explained how this state differs from others. Mayors in North Carolina have very little authority.
"The state uses the 'weak mayor' system," he said. "Mayors have no veto, no appointment authority over committees. Mayor is primarily a ceremonial position."
Most residents probably think mayors have more authority than they really do, he said. When they have a concern, they go to the mayor or they call a commissioner.
Commissioners in towns with manager/council charters actually have no more authority than any other resident -- except when sitting as a board. Boards act as a body. Neither a commissioner nor a mayor can or should give instructions to any town worker, not even the mayor -- except when acting collegially in a council meeting, the town leaders were told.
Commissioners deal with managers. Managers deal with employees, service providers and the public. It is therefore very important that commissioners keep themselves informed and educated about municipal government, the town leaders learned.
"That is the most important thing you've said tonight," said Robbins Commissioner Mark Garner.
He told how training sessions he had attended awakened him to the great responsibility he'd undertaken when he joined the town board. That training brought the realization of the weight of authority, and its attendant responsibility.
"In Robbins, we had gotten used to hearing people ask 'When are they going to ' -- always they," Garner said. "Now we know that citizens are the boss. We are 'they,'"
Stenberg answered questions, reminding the town commissioners again and again that they act only as a body. The challenge is how to become an effective governing board. Boards are almost always poor at evaluating employee performance.
"When a town worker does something terrific, you hear about that," Stenberg said. "You hear about it when one does something terrible. Boards don't deal with them day-to-day. Much of a town's work is like a business. It helps to have a professional on the job."
Neither a mayor, nor any council member, should ever give instructions to a town worker. They deal directly with the manager -- and even then, only as a body. When a mayor tells the manager to do something -- no matter what it is -- that undermines the manager's authority.
Stenberg described one town where a particular commissioner wanted as much of the town work as possible "privatized" and instructed the manager to prepare reports, charts and so forth. The board overruled that commissioner, but the manager left, he said.
Managers serve at the pleasure of the boards, but nearly all work under contracts.
Replying to a number of questions from commissioners about confidentiality, Stenberg encouraged them to be as open as possible.
"Closed sessions can be held for only a few limited purposes: if you want to buy a piece of property, or talk over a lawsuit with your lawyer or deal with a personnel issue ," he said. "It is a good practice, on legal questions, to ask your lawyer first. Otherwise, it is like the old TV ad: pay me now, or pay me later."
Otherwise, keep everything out in the sunshine, he advised. Every paper, note, letter -- even an e-mail -- is a public document available for anybody who wants to see it. That, he said, is the way it should be in North Carolina.
Even the authority of councils over their managers is, for the most part, outside their control.
"The authority of town managers is set in law by the General Assembly," Stenberg said.
Contact John Chappell at 783-5841 or by e-mail at jchappell@ thepilot.com.
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