Surprise leaders reaffirm council-manager government; seminar clarifies city code, roles

City Attorney Robert Wingo leads a presentation and discussion on requirements of the council-manager form of government at a Jan. 10 City Council special meeting at Surprise City Hall, 16000 N. Civic Center Plaza. [Matt Roy/Independent Newsmedia]

By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia

Surprise leaders met this afternoon for something of a refresher course on how their city government is meant to run.

City Attorney Robert Wingo shared insights into City Code, which dictates a “council-manager” form of government in a presentation during the Jan. 10 City Council special meeting at Surprise City Hall, 16000 N. Civic Center Plaza.

He suggested the informational session was a good way for a new council to start a new year.

“I realized that during my five-year tenure here, I haven’t seen any presentation on this topic,” Mr. Wingo said. “And while it’s not an overly complicated one, it is important. As we go through the day-to-day operations, we just assume that everyone understands what we’re talking about when we talk about the council-manager form and that might not always be the case.”

The presentation focused on Section 2 of City Code, which states: “The city of Surprise will operate under a council-manager form of government, combining strong political leadership with strong managerial experience of a city manager.”

The code is not merely a guide or ideal, but a specific requirement of city government, Mr. Wingo asserted.

“This is not just an aspirational idea we’re ascribing to. It’s not something we say, ‘Well, when it’s convenient, we operate this way.’ It’s not. It’s the law of the city,” Mr. Wingo said. “The ordinances of the city are not just adopted on a whim or arbitrarily. You can bet your bottom dollar there is a legal reason behind it or at least a practical reason.”

The attorney outlined a management structure with voters at the top, followed by City Council, the city manager and then city staffers descending in that order.

As such, voters elect the council, which is responsible to the electorate; likewise, the council hires a city manager, which is accountable to the council, and so on.

The key value to the structure is in providing city management and staffers a necessary protection from undue political influence, establishing clearly defined lanes for the city’s political leaders and professional leaders to operate within.

Mr. Wingo suggested that without those delineations, elected leaders may – in some cases – interfere with city management in ways that can set the stage for mismanagement and, perhaps, corruption.

“There’s forms where the mayor is more of a managerial position and makes everyday decisions for the city,” Mr. Wingo said. “And the complaint with those systems, generally, is that they raise issues of the ‘isms.’ Like favoritism, cronyism, things of that nature. This system is designed to alleviate those ills and give some insulation to the management and the staff, so that they can make decisions based on objective standards.”

Some of the tasks City Council members may not engage in as part of a council-manager form of government include involvement in personnel matters or giving orders to any city employee, who is under the supervision of an appointed official.

Surprise has only four employees, who are appointed by the city council: the city manager, city attorney, city clerk and city judge.

While the city manager is the operational or administrative head of the city, directing city personnel to conduct day-to-day operations, the council provides direction, sets long and short-term goals, adopts the budget and creates and adopts policy, Mr. Wingo explained.

Following the public informational session, Surprise resident Andy Cepon – a local watchdog and frequent, vocal critic of city leaders – offered enthusiastic support for what he described as a long-needed clarification of roles.

“I’d like to say ‘Kudos!’ to the mayor, the city attorney and the city manager for doing this. This is long overdue. It’s been violated for years,” Mr. Cepon asserted. “Hopefully it sets you on a strong foundation to follow the rules … this is phenomenal. This should have been done a long time ago. And I would suggest it be done every two years when a new council comes in.”

Following the meeting, Mayor Skip Hall said he agreed the learning session was valuable and necessary to reinforce the council-manager approach.

“I just felt, in general, that we as a city had gotten away from that somewhat,” Mr. Hall said. “And that there was too much direction given by council, either fragmented – one council member telling the city manager what to do without the whole council – or actually giving direction to staff at times.”

He said with so many new faces at the top of government, it seemed a good time make the roles and rules clear.

“I felt like, we’ve got two new council people, plus we have two that have only been on a year, so they’re relatively new. And we need to be reminded of how this council-manager form of government is supposed to work and why it works, because it works well,” Mr. Hall added.

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