Raleigh and Oakland Are Overdoing Hands-On Government

In these cities, as in many more across the country, elected council members have confused governing with administering.

In March, Oakland, Calif., City Auditor Courtney Ruby issued a performance audit on the subject of interference by city council members in the city’s administrative work. More than 40 city employees were interviewed, and thousands of council members’ and council aides’ emails, as well as some phone records, were reviewed.

The audit found that “a culture of interference appears to be felt” across many city departments and that it had led to some city staffers reprioritizing their work in response to requests from multiple council members or their aides. In all, the auditors substantiated 14 instances of council members or aides violating the city’s charter by bypassing the city administrator, the mayor and other officials.

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On the other side of the country, in Raleigh, N.C., a public records request found a flurry of emails from city council members expressing dissatisfaction with the city’s long-serving city manager, Russell Allen, whom they subsequently fired. The council members, reported the Raleigh News & Observer, “wanted to take a more hands-on role in governing the city -- from protecting their reserved parking spots to meeting directly with department heads.” An email from one council member who has been particularly “hands-on” in his dealings with city employees directed that one city staff member work on a project that hadn’t yet gone before the entire council. Raleigh’s city charter reads much like Oakland’s in prohibiting such interference.

In these cities, as in many more across the country, elected council members have confused governing with administering. There’s a reason why these charters are written the way they are: Cronyism and corruption had made many municipal governments ineffective and inefficient. When individual council members are allowed to direct staff, it might seem to empower the legislative body, but in fact it diminishes its ability to work at a scale that can have real impact on community-level outcomes.

Members of a city council can act in two ways: as members of a body legislating and overseeing city operations and as individuals engaging their constituents and representing them in the legislative and oversight process. When they try to directly manage city employees, they undercut the work of the full council in legislating and oversight.

The executive -- either in the form of a city manager or a mayor -- carries out the council’s legislation. The council conducts oversight to determine how well the executive is acting on its direction, what the results are, how those results compare to what was intended and what changes need to be made. This work is enormously important. It’s the work that should be done by council members who run on a platform of “shaking things up” and “getting things done at city hall.”

Predictably, Courtney Ruby’s audit has gotten her into hot water with the Oakland City Council. The full council has yet to directly confront the findings in her report, but individual council members she identified in the audit have attacked her and urged their colleagues to “audit the audit.” For a member of the council to refuse to go along to get along, and to speak out against colleagues who appear to violate the charter, will require real courage. Upon being sworn into office, city council members take an oath to uphold their city’s charter. They should keep their word.

Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City