The Case For Hiring A Town Administrator

[Editor’s note: Since publishing this essay in 2019 I have learned more about this issue. I have since modified my opinion. We do not need a town administrator: we need a MANAGER. Hiring a town manager requires a change to our municipal corporate charter, from a mayor-council to a council-manager form of government. A manager cannot simply be defunded and our government reverted back to the broken system we have now. Otherwise, the reasons cited below remain valid.]

The question of whether to hire a town administrator, in addition to a clerk, is an important decision for Ramseur today. Most of the candidates who appeared at the forum last weekend stated that they understand the value of hiring an administrator but there was some disagreement over whether and how to go about filling both positions. Most citizens of Ramseur seem to agree that we can no longer afford not to hire a professional town administrator.

Mayor Shaw has stated that he would prefer the board hire one person to fill the roles of town administrator, clerk, zoning administrator, and finance officer (treasurer). That’s pretty much where we were until last July when our former clerk, Bobbie Hatley, resigned. She, Commissioner Cheek, and Mayor Shaw were the de facto administration of the Town of Ramseur, and that arrangement ended badly for several reasons, not the least of which involved tasking one person with far too many responsibilities.

It wouldn’t matter if we paid an administrator a salary of $100,000 or $1,000,000; if you ask more than is humanly possible from a person no amount of money will make the arrangement work. Asking one person to fill too many roles in an operation as complex as a town – even one as small as Ramseur – is a recipe for failure. Our Board of Commissioners should be working to fill two positions: town clerk and town administrator.

In those two individuals, the board should be looking for a combination of experience and education that would allow a clerk and administrator, working as a team, to handle all of the administrative duties listed above and others that may arise in the course of doing the town’s business, including billing and collecting payments for our water and sewer utilities. If additional help turns out to be necessary, that need could be filled by part-time student interns or retirees employed a few hours each week to answer telephones and accept payments at the front desk. It’s not rocket science folks.

The remainder of this article will lay out why I believe this is the solution we should pursue. I will draw from sources at the UNC School of Government (SoG), as well as relevant information from other states.

First, it’s important to define what a town administrator is and how that differs from a town manager in North Carolina.  Frayda Bluestein at UNC SoG defined the terms in a blog post on the subject in 2010.

There are no specific statutes that describe town administrators or delineate their powers. That’s because a town administrator is a position created by the governing board in mayor-council cities. In a mayor-council city, the council has the legal authority to appoint employees and has broad authority to organize the government. (See G.S. 160A-146).  In addition, G.S. 160A-155 specifically authorizes the council in mayor-council cities to delegate to any administrative official or department head its authority to appoint, suspend, and remove employees. Under this authority, the council may create the position and hire an administrator to perform functions similar to or even identical to those that a manager in a council-manager city would perform.

“So what’s the difference between a manager and an administrator? In a council-manager form of government the manager’s powers and duties are set by state law (G.S. 160A-148).  The council has no authority to modify the manager’s powers, except perhaps to add to those listed in the statute. An administrator’s powers, on the other hand, are delegated by the council and can be defined, modified, or even completely eliminated, in the council’s discretion.

“In addition to supervisory authority, councils may delegate to administrators authority for things like approving contracts and other expenditures, and in some cases, cities confer upon the administrator the duties of clerk or finance officer. Basically, the council can delegate to an administrator any of its power or duty as it chooses, as long as no statute requires the power or duty to be exercised by the board itself.”

Contrary to what some candidates and current commissioners have stated in the past, hiring a town administrator takes no authority away from the board. In fact, everything I read on the subject says just the opposite; hiring a qualified administrator gives board members more time to focus on what they were elected to do: study issues and make good policy decisions.

Our local board would most likely not want to authorize an administrator to approve contracts, nor do I believe they should, but they probably would ask an administrator to develop contracts or the research materials needed to solicit bids and select the best options available.

Most of the candidates told us last weekend that they do not have all the answers, and no one should expect them to. We should expect them to hire professionals who in turn will empower the board members with the information needed to make the best decisions possible on every issue they consider.

Hiring two people to fill the necessary administrative roles in our office, regardless of how the duties are divided between them, would help ensure that if one resigned or became incapacitated there would almost always be at least one person in the office familiar with the day to day functions that keep our town running smoothly. The chaos we’ve seen since clerk Hatley’s departure provides all the proof anyone should need to see the value of having both an administrator and a clerk on our payroll.

Departmental supervisors reporting to a single administrator gives board members, as well as every employee or contractor in every department, a stable chain of command that doesn’t change after each election. It also eliminates the ridiculous argument that some commissioners are more important than others and must be available in town during business hours. The practice of individual commissioners being assigned responsibility for separate departments must end with this year’s election.

Continuity and stability are sorely lacking in the way our local government operates today. Under an administrator, departmental supervisors would have one person to report issues to. Often a policy, already in place, could be referenced and the issue resolved on the spot. In cases where no policy exists, an administrator could research the issue and distribute information to board members who would then discuss it and make a decision in a public meeting. That process takes no authority away from elected officials. If anything it empowers them to be better policymakers.

After reading through the materials available online, and in the textbook I purchased from UNC SoG, I was curious about what other states have to say on the subject. Obviously, every state is different, but at a base level all local governments exist for one purpose: to provide citizens with services that are cheaper in bulk; things we all want or need such as police and fire protection, sanitation, water, and sewer treatment or recreational opportunities

A case study from the University of Tennessee Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) made a very good case for employing qualified town administrators. According to MTAS, in municipalities without professional administrators governing boards often do not receive the full and accurate information needed for making informed decisions.

Cities without professional administration also frequently lose considerable funds every year to neighboring local governments. “In one city, $350,000 was being lost annually, and the city could only recover lost revenue for the most recent 12 months.” Over several years that amounts to losses in the millions of dollars.

A qualified town administrator will almost always save a municipality money in the long term. One administrator in Tennessee recovered $332,000 in local sales taxes that were wrongfully distributed to other jurisdictions. This added that much to city coffers every year going forward. Sounds like that administrator more than paid for themselves.

According to MTAS professional administrators give governing boards better control because accountability is more centralized. That affords board members more equal involvement and provides citizens with a central point of contact in resolving complaints.

A city attorney’s role and the cost is also minimized with a competent town administrator. Small towns that say they can’t afford an administrator often pay an attorney well over one hundred dollars per hour to address administrative issues that could easily be handled by a professional administrator paid considerably less.

Finally, city administrators provide for more effective use of state and federal grants in providing and paying for city services. A full-time administrator who has the time and latitude to interact with other agencies is more likely to be knowledgeable about the availability of federal and state grants.

I encourage everyone, especially current and aspiring board members, to read the full study, found here, and another document, from the Illinois City/County Management Association, that makes an excellent case for professional town administration as well. This seems like a no-brainer.

When we hire our next administrator I hope the board will have the wisdom to hire someone from outside the community; someone without pre-existing alliances or entanglements. Perhaps more important, the board must give that person the latitude to do the work, and not be an obstacle in the path of progress.

I didn’t live here the first time Ramseur tried having an administrator, but I’ve talked with several people who did, and one common thread has emerged from those discussions: our first administrator’s hands were tied by a board unwilling to let him do his job.

Ramseur needs both a full-time clerk and a qualified administrator to lead our local government, and a board smart enough to get out of the way and let those people do their jobs. Having a competent professional staff handling the day-to-day operations of our town will provide a level of stability that our current system of schoolyard popularity contests and musical chairs, with players changing every other year, simply cannot.