Under new management

The DTH reported today that John Link is retiring after 18 years as the Manager of Orange County government. I have long felt that the "manager/council" form of government (which is employed by all of the towns here as well as the county) works best when the manager does not stay in place for longer than his or her bosses, the elected officials.

When the executive remains in place for along time, a lot of power accumulates in that office. Many of us have seen examples of elected officials stepping gently to appease the staff, when it should really be the other way around. I think our managers should have term limits. Ten years in office, for example, is plenty of time to accomplish strategic inititiatves, realize one's vision, and then leave on a good note.

County Manager John Link announced his retirement at a meeting of the Orange County Board of Commissioners Thursday.

Link, who has served as county manager for 18 years, will step down effective Aug. 31.

In a written letter to the commissioners, Link expressed his gratitude and attachment to the county.

"I feel grateful to have participated in the process that has made Orange County one of the most respected local governments in North Carolina for fiscal integrity, innovation and compassionate delivery of services to our citizens," he read aloud from the statement.

The commissioners expressed their thanks to Link and to his wife, Ginger, for sharing her husband's time with the county.
- Daily Tar Heel, City briefs, 2/10/06

Issues: 

Total votes: 147

Comments

Haha in Ann Arbor we have the opposite problem. We can't keep a manager or superintendent for more than three years. I think the longevity of Link, Cal Horton, and Neil Pedersen is somewhat remarkable and very unusual- although I have certainly seen the same problems with the accumulated power that you have.

In my dealings with John Link and involvement in county issues over the years, I have always been impressed with his professionalism, concern for the county, and his care to follow the lead of the elected officials. I think he has been a great public servant.

Ruby, when you say our system works best "when the manager does not stay in place for longer than his or her bosses, the elected officials," do you mean the manager should serve for four years? (BTW, Carey has been in office since 1984, Halkiotis since 1986 and Gordon since 1990.)

When the manager movement hit the US in the early 1900s, it was to add professional expertise and executive stability to compliment the political perspectives of the elected legislative officials. The majority of governments in communities over 25K now use the council-manager form and seem to believe in its benefits.

As for term limits for managers or elected officials, I oppose them as undemocratic tools that don't really solve the problems people hope that they will. If citizens took their responsibility for their government to heart, the system would be responsive to their wishes through the electoral process.

In my opinion one of the jobs of a town or county manager - in the 21st century - is to be a leader in the use of technology for the betterment of the community's citizens.

Many times when I've worked in corporate IT department the "techies" are lead by career managers who aren't technology experts. Upper management seems to like this because the IT manager doesn't speak tech talk and make them feel stupid. The IT staff hates it because their manager doesn't understand. (I'm lucky that my present manager is very knowledgeable and an excellent manager.)

My point is that all towns need a manager who has a technology vision for the town and or have a competent CTO (Chief Technology Officer) whom they listen to.

I believe that without a vision, mission, and achievable goals for technology implementation in a town a town manager is not doing their job. Sadly many towns do not have a technology VMG statement (Vision Mission Goal) endorsed by the town manger. I believe this happens, in part, because the rate of change in technology is much faster than management can keep up with. There are so many other things to deal with. As we hurdle into the future this knowledge gap will become more and more serious.

In short we must have technology savvy town managers to aggressively direct their staff into a technologically sophisticated future. Without this our towns will not function.

I agree with Mark about John Link. He has been an extraordinary public servant of impeccable integrity.

While there are certainly some risks associated with excessive longevity (including the failure to embrace new technologies that Brian mentions), there's also something to be said for straight-shooting, competent professionals on the job. I'd put John in that category.

I'm not questioning the skills or even the integrity of our local managers. I simply think the system naturally imbues them with more and more influence over the years and this distorts the balance of power.

I would agree that it could do as you say Ruby, but only if those responsible for not letting it happen fall down on their job. Idealistic, yes, but I think it beats the alternative.

I was just surprised that you would advcocate for a central pillar in Newt Gingrich's 1994 "Contract With America." Fortunately, the Constitutional Amendment for term limits went nowhere.

Besides the distortion in the balance of power (some examples leap to mind), it seems a certain calcification sets in, that flexibility in approach diminishes and, possibly, preservation of position surmounts other public considerations.

All are possible outcomes of an uninspected long term reign ;-)

Then have the folks we elected do their job, rather than create undemocratic systems to do it for them.

Fred, I expect this year that this issue will get a long overdue airing.

I understand your concerns Ruby and sometimes I feel the same. But really I think the problem comes from elected/appointed officials allowing power to concentrate rather than that concentration coming as a natural outflow of time on the job. I do think we lose opportunities for creative ways of seeing old problems when we have long-term incumbents. But I also think we benefit from the institutional memory of those incumbents and their ability to negotiate the system more efficiently.

And Fred, while I agree that voters should be the source of term limits for elected officials, the name recognition/visibility of incumbents and their sometimes greater access to campaign funds helps distort the way the system should work.

Morning musings . . .

I've been in business since 1982. During that time, we've started five or six companies, all controlled by a small handful of stockholders. Each company has evolved dramatically in response to opportunities and risks, and the leadership in every case has evolved as well. We've had more than a dozen different CEOs of our various enterprises -- some excellent, some disastrous. Our business practices reflected a conscious decision that continuity was not nearly as important as innovation and agility.

What are the benefits and costs of long tenures by senior professional staff? On the plus side, I see great value in institutional memory for the duration of such tenures. Having a staff who can relate new situations to past issues is incredibly valuable in shortening the learning curve and avoiding repeated mistakes. Long tenures also encourage overall staff stability, which has enormous benefits. High rates of turnover can be expensive propositions because of service gaps, recruiting costs and training needs. Stable leadership generally reduces those risks.

But long tenures also consolidate power and institutional memory in ways that can be traumatic when those tenures end. John Link knows a lot of things that no one else knows . . . and many of them are going to walk out the door with him.

As I look back over my experiences with senior staff members and longevity, I guess I would conclude this. For the most part, long tenures occur only when the people involved are doing a very good job.

All that said, Brian points to a large and important risk related to technology innovation. I can't speak to Orange County in particular, but I can say without hesitation that North Carolina truly sucks in this department. The recent blow-up on NC WISE is but the latest example of our state's disastrous approach to technology adoption. Sure there are some shining positive examples, but in a state that touts itself as technologically savvy, we are pathetic at large-scale transformation. I attribute this problem to "innovation atrophy" that is inherent in our state personnel system. For example, I know one state department head who has spent four years trying to rid his department of miserable managers who can't and won't embrace technology change. These people are costing taxpayers literally hundreds of millions of dollars in poor technology implementations and black holes around productivity and performance.

If anyone has opinions on where Orange County falls along the technology continuum, I'd love to hear it. I'm guessing we're okay, but probably not great.

J

PA Ruby makes important points about the dynamics between elected officials and staff . . . and that's worth serious discussion. Especially in an environment where elected officials must often depend heavily on staff for policy advice and interpretation of ordinances. I'll leave that question to folks with more astute political insights than I'll ever have.

:)

WillR wrote, "Fred, I expect this year that this issue will get a long overdue airing."

Not exactly clear on this. Do you mean that when the BOCC selects the new manager in will air this issue?

Terri, yes the power of incumbency and money are often the two leading justifications for why we need term limits. And as real as the two factors are, they can only trump the power of the electorate when the electorate lets it happen. I know, too idealistic, but like Hamilton wrote in Federalist #72, "Nothing appears more plausible at first sight, nor more ill-founded upon close inspection [than term limits]."

 

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