EDITORIAL: A manager: when, not if

SAVING THE BEST for last makes sense for kids’ birthday parties. It works for mystery novels and horror movies too. But burying a significant fact on the final page of a government policy document seems a little like hiring a stripper to jump out of a toddler’s cake. It’s surprising all right, but what, exactly, is the point?

Consider the report issued this week by a subcommittee of the county Board of Supervisors, which looks at whether the board should hire a county manager. The report is called “The Case for a County Manager,” a 36-page document prepared by a group called the County Manager Initiative Subcommittee. Given the titles of the subcommittee and its report, there isn’t much question about the conclusion. And sure enough, it recommends that the board hire a professional manager.

The committee calls for a salary of up to $150,000 a year — benefits are not addressed — and lays out the basic qualifications needed as well as how this person would answer to the Board of Supervisors. The authors of the report, a bipartisan group of supervisors and respected civilians, repeatedly emphasizes that hiring a manager would not dilute the power of the board. Without putting too fine a point on it, they want the county to hire a technocrat not a king.

The effort to delegate responsibility for the overall day-to-day conduct of county operations began in earnest last August, when Roy Brown (R-Germantown), chairman of the Board of Supervisors, announced his intention to appoint the subcommittee. From the outset some supervisors expressed skepticism about the cost and value of a manager. In its report, the subcommittee addresses these points, starting with the fact that Columbia County is one of only a handful of small counties that does not employ a professional manager. It even suggests that the absence of effective management may be responsible for our high local tax rate.

The subcommittee expects that a county manager could pay for his or her salary by achieving efficiencies not attainable with the part-time, group management approach used by the board right now. It sounds too good to be true, but counties elsewhere have seen it happen.

Some critics prefer to elect a county executive rather than hire a manager. But moving to an elected executive system requires several years and a changeover from the current Board of Supervisors to a directly elected county legislature. So the county could hire a manager now and switch to an elected county executive later.

This manager idea looked like a good move for the county when Mr. Brown introduced it last year and it seems even more attractive now, with the state and national economies still struggling toward recovery even as positive economic signs pop up all around this county. Effective, full-time professional management at the top could help consolidate local gains.

Comments by supervisors are included in the subcommittee’s report, and one unnamed supervisor believes a manager would reduce government transparency, presumably by hoarding information. That’s a critically important point and one that needs to be addressed in the county manager job description. For instance, what obligation would this person have to make public the data that go into his or her recommendations and decisions?

The work of the subcommittee was an open process, but then there’s that very last paragraph. It says that the plan is to bring the proposal before the supervisors next month and to hire a manager before the end of this year.

Talk of hiring a manager has dragged on for two decades, so the theory seems to be: Get it over with quickly and begin to reap the benefits sooner rather than later. The only problem I have with that is something called an election, which happens this November and could affect the makeup of the Board of Supervisors.

Choosing a county manager is, by definition, a political decision, but that doesn’t mean the job must carry the burden of a partisan tinge. If it does, the process will only have made the manager’s job more difficult. Yet that’s exactly what will happen if the current leadership rushes the decision on a manager to a conclusion before the next board takes the oath in January 2012. Yes, agree now to start the selection process. Then let the voters decide who should choose the first full-time manager of our county government.

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