Rick Kirkwood recently retired following 32 years in public administration; 29 years as a City Manager in California, Washington and Utah. He is answering questions and comments from PublicCEO.com readers in today’s City Manager Mailbag.  

What facts do you use to make a decision or recommendation to find the resolution you feel good about?

Information comes from many sources: The Public, staff, research, best practices and experience.  

Elected officials, under our representative form of government, will use their collective judgment during open public session to discuss the most important issues, ask for public comments and use various surveys and tools to get more public information.  

The annual budget process, allocating the scarce resources, is the most time consuming and difficult process. 

Typically, the majority of the public does not engage the council, attend meetings or get directly involved.  Unions, people who have specific projects before the council, and those who have a special interest, are the ones who make their views known.  Council members for the most part rely on their own good judgment and cast the vote they think is right.

Public Administrators do not vote, but they provide their best advice and opinions on matters.  Once the elected officials vote on an issue, the charge of the Public Administrator is to carry out the decision.

The only power the public has is a voice and a vote. They are not stakeholders.

Yes, the public voice is at the ballot box, public comment period, public hearings, letters and personal conversations with elected leaders.  It is a matter of persuasion and influence.  The public is the stakeholders and shareholders in the true sense.  

When elected officials don’t go the way some people want, then they feel disenfranchised and not heard.  You know, “you can please some of the people some of the time, but not all the people all the time.”  I have found that over time, enough people were not pleased; so change occurs, for good or bad.

Public trust in the government is certainly important but the complexity of the issues may turn off the public.  

Public trust is the essential ingredient of our democracy and republic.  Most citizens simply do not have the time or inclination to get involved in the complexity of the many issues facing public administrators and elected officials.  

There is a very broad brush when people discuss government.  

Our national government has direct influence because they control the purse strings particularly with state, county and school districts.  City governments do receive federal money with very specific rules on how the money is spent.  State governments are extremely complex with huge resources spent on prisons, health care, education, highways, state owned facilities, etc.  Counties have very little discretionary money, as they are primarily responsible for carrying out state programs, primarily health, welfare, public safety.  Cities and Special Districts primarily rely on local property tax and sales tax and provide local services, public safety, parks, recreation, street maintenance, water, sewer, garbage, planning etc.  

The amount of property tax and sales tax is, for the most part, a small portion of what is actually taxed.  The majority of the tax goes for state mandated programs. 

I would have to say yes, that a large percentage of the public do not know who provides services, how they are funded and who to go to for resolving issues.

I do not want the government to spend money on the types of things that I do not want money spent on – I do not want the government controlling my life.

Many would agree. Less government, less taxation, more and better services with less strings and nooses.  To change the course, more people need to get directly involved.

How can a local government generate sufficient funds to provide the services they are hired to provide?

In California, local government is restricted on property tax by Proposition 13 and the Gann limit.  

Sales tax can be raised by vote of the people.  Water, sewer and garbage are enterprise funds and the rates people pay are directly related to the cost of those services.  Fees for new development are restricted by the actual cost of providing the infrastructure to serve the new development.  

Essentially, local government has few tools to raise revenue.  Local government has a long history of living within their means and balancing their budgets on time.  We are in unprecedented times and serious service reductions, budget reductions, use of reserves, is the order of the day.  

The real question is: “What services and programs should be eliminated, reduced or set aside?’

Do you think the overhead is too high compared to what is provided?  In a business, cutting overhead increases your profit.

Cutting overhead does not always increase your profits.  In today’s economy, wage and benefit concessions occur at all levels of government. The same can be said for actual program and service reductions and job elimination.
I worry about which way the public sees their local government; are they left or right? Is this a culture issue?

Overall, I sense that the public at the local level simply wants to maintain a quality of life with less intrusion of government at all levels. 

As far as “left or right culture issues,” each community has their own micro cultural issues.  I think on a national level, we will see “left or right” issues play out if people pay attention.

Are the government agencies now dictating what they perceive we the public need?

Well, yes that is pretty much the republic form of government: Electing our representatives.  Non-elected, appointed citizens, who are supposed to have the training, education and experience to run such agencies under the guidance of the elected representatives, head the government agencies. 

As stated throughout this response, an active and engaged public at all levels of government is essential for good government to exist.  Citizens who get involved become the voice.  Elected officials usually hear the vocal minority, and then make their best judgment.

Questions for the City Manager? E-mail the editor at jspencer@publicCEO.com to have your questions answered by Rick Kirkwood.