Changes at the Top?

Chamber Seeks a New Model of Governance for Springfield
Victor Woolridge and Russell Denver

Victor Woolridge, left, and Russell Denver say Springfield needs both a strong mayor and a chief administrative officer.

Victor Woolridge equates it to a project manager.

That’s the simplest and, in his mind, most effective way to describe a new position that Springfield Chamber of Commerce leaders would like to see added to the city’s management structure.

“Chief administrative officer would be the technical term,” said Woolridge, president of the Springfield Chamber and managing director of the real estate finance group at Babson Capital Management. “But this individual, this CAO, would essentially be a project manager, handling a specific assignment, and reporting back to those in charge.”

Among those in charge would be Springfield’s mayor, who, according to the informal proposal being shaped by chamber leaders, would have pre-control-board levels of power, but be serving a four-year term (twice the current length) and earning close to $150,000 per year (more than half again the current rate of compensation). And the CAO’s assignment would be to see that Springfield, which Woolridge described as a “complex, half-billion-dollar entity,” is being managed effectively, and that there is no backsliding from the fiscal and administrative progress achieved by the Finance Control Board that has been essentially running the city for more than three years.

“We’ve been focused on repositioning the top level of local government in such a way that there would be a smooth transition from the control board to local control,” he explained, adding that the CAO his group envisions would act much as the executive director of the control board, Stephen Lisauskas, currently does.

The multi-pronged initiative to change the shape of the of the city’s management structure results from a mix of recent events and new research into the governmental models being used in municipalities across the country, said Russell Denver, president of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield.

He told BusinessWest that the chamber has been supportive of many suggestions spelled out in the Urban Land Institute (ULI) study of the City of Homes undertaken in 2006, including one to examine the city’s management structure and change it if necessary. Chamber leaders generally agree that change is needed, said Denver, and, after some research and calls to cities with various models, they have zeroed in on one that keeps Springfield’s strong mayor, but adds a layer of professional management needed to keep a city with a $515 million budget running smoothly.

“The job of mayor is so complex,” said Denver, “that we need someone in there day to day pushing all the new initiatives that the control board has put forward and making sure that the ball keeps moving.”

The chamber’s pursuit of this model, which is relatively new to Massachusetts, was at least partly inspired by a 1999 report penned by the private, non-profit group the Worcester Regional Research Bureau. Prompted by renewed calls to change that city’s structure from a council-city manager format to a strong mayor (the shift was not approved), the report analyzed trends and concluded that, among other things, there has been a blurring of the traditional lines in municipal governance.

There is movement toward adapting modified city manager and strong mayor formats, said Roberta Schaafer, executive director of the research bureau, adding that these models contain elements of both. She said a number of cities, including Philadelphia, Oakland, St. Petersburg, Fla., San Jose, Calif., and Kansas City, Mo., have embraced formats that include a strong mayor and an administrator carrying titles ranging from city manager to managing director to city administrator.

“The two forms seem to be merging — there doesn’t seem to be the sharp distinction there was before,” she said, noting that council-manager governments have become more political over the years, thus defeating the purpose for which most were established.

However, at the same time, municipal management has become increasingly complex, thus requiring the services of professional administrators to assist strong mayors.

The challenge ahead for those pushing for change in Springfield is to build support for the new model — they have been doing so at informal coffee hours with business owners and managers, while also meeting with city councilors and the city’s legislative delegation — then implement the change through one of several methods available (more on that later), and get all this done so the changes are in place for the 2009 election.

“There needs to be a strategy developed and then an implementation phase to ensure that, from a timing perspective, all this happens as the control board is wrapping up its work,” said Woolridge, noting that the board is slated to depart in roughly 18 months.

In this issue, BusinessWest looks at the changes proposed for management of the city, why they are being considered, and how they might become reality.

Form and Function

Denver told BusinessWest that chamber leaders have been looking at Springfield’s governmental structure, and if and how it should be changed, for roughly a year.

A working group, led by Woolridge, has met more than a dozen times to discuss the matter. Focusing strictly on the mayor’s position and questions about whether to add a professional administrator, this panel has come to some conclusions:

• First, that the strong-mayor form of government should be maintained in Springfield.

“I think the residents of Springfield want to see their mayor back in control,” said Denver, noting that the control board has been running the ship the past three years.

• Second, that the term for that office should be four years, not two, to give the office holder time and opportunity to achieve progress without facing an election every other year.

“With elections every two years, the mayor of Springfield spends one year managing and one year running for re-election, and that’s not an efficient way to run a city,” said Denver. “Boston’s mayor has a four-year term, and we think that’s appropriate.”

• Third, that the salary for the mayor’s job be increased from the current $95,000 to $150,000 to attract a wider pool of candidates.

“Most of our mayors and mayoral candidates have been coming from the City Council,” said Woolridge. “This isn’t necessarily bad, but if the salary was higher, we could attract some people from the business community who could run, but haven’t run historically because they’re making more than what the mayor’s job pays.”

• Fourth, that the strong mayor format be modified to include a new position — chief administrative officer — and that this individual serve a five-year term to provide a measure of continuity needed when there is a change in mayoral administrations.

Pursuit of a CAO has been inspired by the success of the control board in restoring fiscal order in Springfield, said Denver, and a desire among many in the business community to maintain this level of professionalism and accountability in city operations.

“This individual, this CAO, would be the day-to-day manager of the city, which would allow the strong mayor to focus on bigger-picture matters,” he explained. “The mayor would be more of an advocate on both the state and federal levels for additional funding, and would be the one creating relationships with federal, state, and local officials.

“Do you need a mayor sitting in on contract negotiations? No, a city administrator could handle that,” he continued. “The CAO can take all the recommendations included in various reports and make sure that those things get done. These are the day-to-day things you need to keep the city moving in the right direction, and you can’t have the mayor involved in all of them — there aren’t enough hours in the day.”

Detail Work

This CAO would work for the city and report to the mayor and city council, said Woolridge, returning to his analogy of a project manager.

“If we’re building a large office building, and we’re the partners, then we’re in control,” he explained. “But we hire a professional project manager to make sure all of the disciplines are coordinated and our strategy is effectively implemented.

“That person reports back to the people in charge,” he continued, “and the people in charge continue to direct that individual on which way to go. But that project-manager type of person is responsible for coordinating all the efforts.”

Schaafer had a somewhat different analogy — that of a college president and a provost. The former represents the school and works primarily to set a vision, while also building an endowment, she explained, while a provost acts as a chief of operations.

Divisions of labor vary from city to city, said Schaafer, referring to specific duties for both mayors and professional managers in the new, “modified” formats, but, in general, the mayor is responsible for developing a vision, while the administrator carries it out, essentially making sure that the trains run on time.

While Schaafer sees some benefits to the strong mayor/CAO model and understands why Springfield would pursue it in light of its recent fiscal problems and scandals, she questions plans for a five-year contract for the manager. In most models she’s seen, the CAO is chosen by the mayor, appointed by the council, and can be terminated only for cause. Having a five-year term for the CAO but a four-year term for the mayor makes little sense, she said.

And while chamber leaders hope and expect that the changes in governmental structure will lead to improvement in how the city is run, some research suggests that governmental structure does not play a deciding role in municipal performance.

A 2004 study undertaken by the research bureau suggests that a change in government is not likely to have a dramatic effect (positive or negative) on performance areas ranging from economic development to crime; from test scores in schools to muncipal fiscal health.

“There are many other factors that influence municipal health, such as national economic trends, availability of land to develop, quality of workforce, state tax structure, local policies, and individual leadership qualities,” stated the report’s authors. “The form of municipal government has little effect on these factors except that the form and particular provisions within a charter may encourage or discourage strong leadership. Both mayor and manager forms of government are capable of producing strong leaders.”

There are several ways for Springfield to implement a change, including a special act of the Legislature, a charter commission, or even a decision of the control board, said Denver, noting that voters would need to approve a lengthening of the mayoral term from two to four years.

The key is to move the process forward, said Woolridge, noting that those backing this initiative do not have time of their side.

“We’re talking about a broad strategy,” he explained. “The details of how it might get implemented and determining what the right course is … those haven’t been fully vetted yet. The timeline needs to be looked at, and there are a lot of issues lying under the water that have to be looked at. But you develop the vision and strategy first before you work out the details, and we’ve done that.”

Taking a Strong Position

Just how those details will be worked out remains to be seen, but Springfield chamber leaders believe the strong mayor/CAO model they’re pursuing represents a real chance to maintain the momentum achieved on several fronts by the control board, while also making the mayor’s position more attractive, from a fiscal standpoint, and more effective.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” said Denver, noting that, with this model, city residents can elect someone to set a tone and develop a vision for their city, while a professional manager can handle the myriad details involved with carrying out that vision.

If all goes as planned, the very top of city management will look much different in January 2010. That’s when the ‘project manager’ will report for duty.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

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