Santa Fe has done what seemed impossible. It has created a worse and flabbier government than the old system of a city council and a city manager.
Lots of communities entrust all the daily operations of government to a full-time city manager. Santa Fe used to be one of them. This system protected everyone except the public.
When something went wrong, the city manager could say he had followed directives from the part-time mayor and city councilors. Accountability was absent. If an extraterrestrial descended on the Plaza and said, “Take me to your leader,” the city manager might not know which of his bosses to choose.
City Council members could counter by saying the appointed city manager was responsible for getting things done. Council members couldn’t be expected to keep track of a thousand details. That’s why there was a full-time city manager and sometimes a deputy city manager, too.
Under this system, everybody with a title had an escape hatch. The buck stopped nowhere.
Santa Fe voters changed the city charter to alter this form of government. The result is something even more convoluted.
It used to be that the part-time mayor was a glorified city councilor. He just had a better title and a gavel to pound at meetings.
But with changes that took effect last year, the mayor became a full-time executive. A government committee raised the mayor’s salary by more than $80,000 a year, to $110,000.
Something else didn’t change, though. A city manager remains on the payroll.
The full-time mayor, Alan Webber, then expanded this bureaucracy by larding his staff with two more highly paid employees — a chief of staff and a director of constituent and council services. It’s overkill in a city of 85,000.
The charter changes gave Webber authority over the city manager. And the city manager wouldn’t dare make a move of any importance without first being sure Webber was on board.
Yet the city manager is described in the charter as the government’s chief administrative officer. The manager technically has the authority to hire and fire most city employees. It’s a laugh that it would work that way, being that the mayor can fire the manager.
With the city manager being chief administrative officer, what does that make the mayor? Webber has an equally lofty title — chief executive officer.
Yet he functions as a council member, too, voting on legislation.
It’s a fine mess. One way to clean it up is to shrink the size of government. A starting point would be to eliminate at least one of the expensive and unnecessary jobs Webber has added to the central office.
I once asked him what his chief of staff does that the city manager couldn’t do. He spoke for a minute or two without answering my question.
But Webber now has a chance to replace a bit of his bloated bureaucracy in the name of efficiency.
His city manager, making $170,000 a year, is resigning to become the Santa Fe County fire chief, a less political and less lucrative job.
Webber’s chief of staff, Jarel LaPan Hill, worked on his campaign. She knows Webber well. And after 17 months at City Hall, she should have a passing understanding of the city’s weaknesses.
Webber should hire her as city manager with a salary equal to his pay of $110,000 a year. It might sound modest in this administration, but it would be a raise for her and a terrific professional opportunity.
Then Webber should eliminate the job of chief of staff. A full-time mayor and his handpicked city manager ought to be able to oversee a dozen city departments. If they can’t, candidates in the next mayoral election in two years have a gift-wrapped campaign issue.
More administrative cuts could and should be made by Webber. But with politics and pride factoring in these decisions, any further streamlining is a 100-to-1 shot.
Real efficiency will depend on voters. They eventually should approve another charter amendment to limit the payrollers.
With a full-time mayor, the city manager is an unnecessary appendage. Voters would eliminate that job if given another crack at reforms.
They also would remove the mayor from legislative votes but give him or her veto power.
These changes would make it easier for voters to determine if the mayor was delivering quality services in the most economical way.
Being mayor would become a much tougher job than the one Webber holds today. That’s as it should be.
“When the burdens of the presidency seem unusually heavy, I always remind myself it could be worse. I could be a mayor,” said the late Lyndon Johnson.
He was only half-joking. And when Johnson spoke of a mayor, he wasn’t describing anyone shackled to a city manager.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at email@example.com or 505-986-3080.