Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, we can do without it. And yes, we realize voters here have rejected the idea in the past.
But none of that changes our minds: It’s time for Cheyenne to move to a city manager form of government or hire a well-trained, experienced city administrator.
Because no matter how you feel about the Capital City’s mayors – current or former – it should be obvious that running a city with nearly $100 million in annual spending and more than 550 employees is a monumental task for one person.
Before we go any further, we have to say we believe our elected officials and city staff genuinely want what’s best for the city. And they deserve a lot of credit for all of the work they do. In fact, as we’ve said here previously, we applaud Mayor Marian Orr, many of her department heads and staff for the improvements they have made in recent years. In fact, not long after taking office, Mrs. Orr became involved in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative as a way to get high-level training to make her even more effective in her new role.
But that doesn’t mean things can’t be even better.
In fact, we had hoped Mayor Orr would be the first to admit the current mayor-council form of government puts a heavy burden square on the mayor’s shoulders. At one point during last week’s meeting with the WTE Editorial Board, she joked about not realizing what she was getting into when she decided to run for the city’s top leadership position. She also is the first Cheyenne mayor in recent memory to have a chief of staff, who represents her at certain meetings – an acknowledgement she can’t be everywhere at once.
Yet when asked whether she supported moving to a city manager form of government, Mayor Orr said she used to be – before she was elected to the position. Read into that what you will, but we think she doesn’t want to appear weak, she doesn’t want to lose any of her current authority or a combination of the two. She told us it has more to do with the fact such an administrator would cost at least $130,000 a year, it causes confusion about who’s really in charge of the city, and there’s a national trend away from city managers. (To which we respond: Likely true, we don’t think so and not true at all. In fact, to the latter point, data from the International City/County Management Association shows a slight increase in the number of cities the size of Cheyenne with city managers from 2004-19.)
She also said she thinks it’s important for the mayor to retain override authority over certain council decisions. But that wouldn’t have to go away, depending on how the city manager charter is written.
Regardless of her reasoning, we think it’s a mistake for Mrs. Orr to dismiss the idea out of hand. From what we’re hearing, the tide of public opinion may be turning in favor of hiring a professional to manage the day-to-day operations of city government.
But no matter whether the idea is popular or not, we feel the state’s largest city needs a professional city manager or administrator. That person would bring:
- TRAINING – The person hired by the City Council to fill this post would have an advanced degree in public administration, business administration or a related field.
- EXPERIENCE – Few elected mayors (and council members, for that matter) have experience running an organization as large as Cheyenne city government or one structured in the same way. Most city managers, on the other hand, must have at least five years of experience in municipal government to get their first job.
- CONSISTENCY – Probably the main benefit of a city manager is the steady leadership they can provide as mayors and city council members come and go. Just ask Tom Forslund, who served as city manager in Casper for 22 years before leaving to lead the Wyoming Department of Family Services and then the state Health Department. Or Carter Napier, who had two decades of experience – including working for Mr. Forslund and stints as city administrator in Riverton and Gillette – when he became Casper’s current city manager.
Laramie and Jackson also currently have city managers, while many other Wyoming cities much smaller than Cheyenne have city administrators. As they have done in those communities, we think such an executive would help Cheyenne city government become even more efficient and accountable to the public. They also would work more directly with department heads to make city services more responsive to the needs of local residents and business people. The key to such effectiveness would be in how the position is set up and what authority they are given.
There’s no guarantee the investment would pay off immediately, of course. But at this point, we think it’s worth a shot. If you agree, as we head toward another election next year, we encourage you to ask candidates for city office whether they support such a change.
We certainly will be.