Connecting state and local government leaders

When Local Council Members Test the Limits of Their Authority

The Tacoma Dome is in Pierce County, Washington.

The Tacoma Dome is in Pierce County, Washington. Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

In most cases, a city or county’s governing body “doesn’t manage day-to-day operations. That’s management’s job.” But the divisions aren’t always clearly defined.

Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier made local headlines in Washington state last month when he instructed county staff to avoid conducting business with Councilwoman Pam Roach that hadn’t been approved in advance and also to avoid doing any business with the councilwoman by word of mouth.  

“[R]espond to requests for information from Roach only if she submits them in writing or during public council meetings,” read a memo from Dammeier’s office sent out on Aug. 22. “All information or assistance to Roach must be provided in writing and retained. [Department] directors and staff may excuse themselves from meetings attended by Roach, or phone calls from her, if they think she is being rude or unprofessional.”

Dammeier, a Republican, told The News Tribune in Tacoma that the memo was prompted by accumulating dust-ups with Roach reported by staffers in the public works, budget and finance departments that fit a pattern of unprofessional behavior established by Roach across her 26 years as a GOP state senator.

“One hoped that [Roach’s] behavior here would rise to a higher standard than what was the case when she was in Olympia, but it hasn’t,” Dan Grimm, the county’s chief operating officer and the author of the memo, The News Tribune reported.

Roach, who was elected to the county council last November, told reporters she has been trying to do what’s best for her constituents. “I’m gonna do what I think is right, and it’s well motivated. I’m doing good stuff,” she said.

Roach said Dammeier is opposed to her efforts to greater publicize regional planning and is seeking to quash her plan to establish a county farming commission.

The scrap in Pierce County highlights the sometimes blurry lines of jurisdictional authority in places where there is either an elected executive, a professional manager or administrator who have day-to-day responsibilities over the local government workforce. Council-manager governments are the most prevalent local governance structure in the U.S.

As the Sacramento-based Institute for Local Government explained more than a decade ago in an advice column for elected city council members, there’s an important difference between, on one hand, telling staffers what needs doing and, on the other, telling them what to do.

“[Staffers appreciate] hearing from council members about conditions of which the city should be aware. The key is to communicate this in a way that does not direct or appear to direct staff to act.”

In an interview with Route Fifty, Hana Callaghan, director of government ethics at Markula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, suggested readers might think about the relationship in corporate terms.

“A city or county council is like a corporate board,” she said of the council-manager form of local government. “It works as a whole to formulate policy. It doesn’t manage day-to-day operations. That’s management’s job.”

A 2015 Markula Center report explained, government staffers don’t work under the direction of individual council members or for their particular constituents. On the contrary, government staffers are a public resource.

“Many newly elected officials have an imperfect understanding of the division of labor,” the Markula Center authors wrote. “New officials may act as though staff work for them as individuals and should be responsive to their individual priorities and the needs of their specific constituents. If a council member ran on a platform of clean streets, for example, he or she may believe that the proper course of action once elected is to meet directly with the sanitation director and encourage prompt action. But the council member must work through the democratic process with other council members to make clean streets a priority across the city. That priority would then be conveyed to the city manager, to whom the sanitation director reports.”

Indeed, the power individual local and regional council members typically are allowed to exert over individual government employees is extremely limited by design, as Los Angeles-based attorneys Melanie Poturica and David Urban wrote in 2007 for Western City, a League of California Cities publication.

“The primary reason why council members have virtually no role with regard to individual city employees is that applicable law provides that council members will act as a body, not as individuals,” they wrote. “Indeed, the law requires that, with limited exceptions, the council conduct city business only through duly convened meetings ‘in full view of the public.’ Thus, when an individual city council member takes unilateral action, his or her conduct may well lose the sanction of the law.”

In that light, it seems clear that Roach shouldn’t have been meeting personally and off the record with staffers in the Pierce County government offices—which isn’t to say that kind of meeting isn’t a more widespread problem.

Earlier this year, Antioch, California, a city about 45 miles northeast of San Francisco, hosted a clash between recently elected Mayor Sean Wright and City Manager Steve Duran.

As the East Bay Times reported in March, after Duran reprimanded Wright for taking personal meetings with potential city contractors and city staffers that he said may have violated municipal rules, Wright, who as mayor is also a member of the City Council, responded by recommending that his colleagues fire Duran, an action taken later that month.

The meeting laws that guide council action in Pierce County, Antioch, and similar jurisdictions all around the country are meant to protect the public, but they’re also aimed at protecting council members against accusations of corruption and bias.

The point is that council members might be seen as circumventing established procedures in order to benefit friends, family, or constituents at the expense of the wider public they are elected to serve. And that can sometimes cause jurisdictional heartburn.  

John Tomasic is a journalist based in Seattle.

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