Water Cooler Wednesday: Delray Charter Amendment

Delray will vote on a critical charter change Aug. 26

Delray will vote on a critical charter change Aug. 26

On August 26, voters in Delray Beach will head to the polls and decide whether to change the charter which mandates that only a super majority vote can remove a city manager.

It’s an important issue for voters to decide because a city manager is an extremely important position in a council/manager form of government.

I’m writing this having had the benefit of 7 years’ experience as an elected official in Delray Beach, including four years as mayor and over a decade of experience covering city government as a journalist. I have been studying Delray city government since 1987.

   I was there in the 1980s when we had a revolving door and I’ve seen stability at City Hall as well. While I understand and respect why the super majority was instituted, I have always felt it was poor public policy. In fact, I have had a friendly but vigorous debate with those who supported the super majority for close to 20 years.

   In a representative democracy it is important that the buck stop with elected officials who can be held accountable by the voters. This is especially true in a council-manager form of government in which day to day responsibility is entrusted to a non-elected chief executive. That means for an elected official to succeed–he or she–has to have a strong relationship with city staff through the city manager. The Commission sets goals and policy (hopefully with ample citizen input), but relies on staff to get it done. It’s a partnership. If one side of the partnership is lacking and the elected officials cannot hold them accountable, trouble ensues.

 The only leverage that citizens and taxpayers have over government is at the ballot box. That is why it is critical that elected officials be able to insist on accountability and performance from city staff, particularly the city manager. If a simple majority of elected officials cannot count on a city manager to do the job and cannot dismiss the manager, we end up with a very large problem. If commissioners and mayors aren’t cutting it, we can and have fired them at election time. If a manager isn’t performing, it has been very difficult to do so under our current charter.


   While a super majority may protect a manager from some of the vagaries of politics, in reality it makes the executive virtually bullet-proof. That is not a good outcome for the community.

   It is difficult– if not impossible– to have accountability when executives know that their employers cannot remove them from office even if a majority of elected officials feel strongly that the community is not being served.

 I can think of no precedent in the public or private sector where it makes sense to allow an executive to serve against the will of a majority of his or her supervisors; especially when those supervisors represent the public.

 As for the risk that we will be encouraging instability, I would argue that the voters can exercise checks on their elected representatives. I would rather we risk losing someone good than risk not being able to dismiss someone who is not up to the job or doing damage to our city and staff.

 I have a deep appreciation for the difficulty of the city manager’s position in a city as complex as Delray Beach.

 A successful manager needs to be financially astute, politically savvy (but not political), energetic, passionate and willing to make hard decisions to achieve the best outcomes for the long term good of the organization and the community.

 He or she needs to be able to develop a team, to evaluate talent, to understand technology, work with the community and manage people in a way that motivates them to go above and beyond. A successful manager also needs to be able to work effectively with elected officials and understand that they are the policymakers and that is the staff’s job to achieve commission goals efficiently.

 I have heard the argument that eliminating the super majority will make the job less desirable. I would argue that great managers/leaders don’t worry about those considerations.

 We have worked hard and created one of the most desirable cities in America. I believe we should be able to attract the best management available in the marketplace. There are few cities in America with the assets and strengths of Delray Beach, not to mention the pedigree of success. This is a very desirable job and this charter change will not change that.

  A yes vote will ensure that current and future City Managers will be accountable to Delray’s stakeholders. Vote on August 26.