What can a Chief Administrative Officer do for the City of Detroit?
by: Alexander Derdelakos
There has been a lot of talk at the Detroit Charter Revision Commission meetings lately about the incorporation of a Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) into Detroit's Government structure. These discussions have been instigated by Commissioner Reggie Reg Davis who has been the strongest supporter of the idea. Early in the drafting phase of the revision process Commissioner Davis presented an argument for the pros and cons of either a Chief Administrative Officer or Council Manager. The Commission quickly dismissed any proposal for a Council Manager but left open the debate for a CAO. The Commission instructed Staff to prepare a report on the idea for further discussion. Led by Executive Director, Gregory Hicks, the report was presented to the Commission in mid-January but the proposal for a CAO was again shelved with little discussion.
To this point in the drafting process the Commission has confirmed that the overall structure of Detroit City government will take a "Mayor - Council" form. This system can operate in many forms but the current balance of power is defined as a "Strong Mayoral" system. That means that the executive branch of city government is headed by an elected mayor and is in charge of most or all departments within city government, administering day-to-day operations of city services and preparing the city budget.
But what is a Chief Administrative Officer and what could its implementation do for the City of Detroit?
Both parts of that question can be open for debate. The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) is a global organization that works to train and place public managers in positions such as the one now in question. Their website (icma.org) outlines duties and responsibilities, qualifications and typical selection processes for a CAO in complex cities like Detroit. These recommendations were used by Commission staff to prepare their report and by Commissioner Davis in outlining a plan for Detroit.
Based on the talks around the Commission Table the adoption of a CAO could be a fixture of the Executive branch with confirmation power by City Council. It is the responsibility of the CAO to manage the day-to-day operations of departments, produce a budget for the Mayor's approval and act as a liaison to the City Council. Not much debate amongst Commissioners has produced suggestions for specific qualifications for the position but ICMA suggests a minimum of a M.A. in Public Administration or related field and at least 5-7 years experience in government management or a B.A. of the same and 7-10 years experience.
The intention of such a position may be debated but the result is expected to be a more efficient and effective local government that harmonizes the response of both branches. Instituting confirmation power of a key administrator in the Executive Branch by the City Council allows the balance of power to tip to a more equitable level while continuing the accepted role of executive administration. If instituted properly it also begins to reconcile a long standing problem in Detroit politics by eliminating the 'friends and family' plan of departmental appointments.
It is also the opinion of this citizen that the responsibilities of the Mayor are and always have been two-fold. On the one hand it is imperative that Detroit's executive branch be led by a strong administrator that has the ability to manage the operations of city government with the fiscal responsibility inherent to the task. On the other hand the citizens of any municipality, district or state pine for the type of charismatic leader that can publicly 'take the bull by the horns', effectively negotiate with the private sector and empathize with his/her constituents. Most importantly a leader who isn't afraid to tell Detroiters the truth and has the ability to do so with an air of sensitivity and respect.
To find a person that carries these distinct traits is no easy task.
The feature that draws me most to the implementation of a CAO is the independence of these distinctions. The appointed administrator is qualified to manage city departments and produce a responsible budget without the messy politicking that is involved in the election and campaigning process. While citizens can feel more easy electing a strong charismatic leader that can foster their hopes for the city with less worry that he/she will neglect the operation of city government. This is one of the strongest arguments for such a position and it alone boosts my hope for the future of Detroit's government and structure.
I began writing this opinion in the week leading up to the March 19th Commission meeting at which Commissioner Davis was to present his proposal for a CAO. As reported by Jacqueline Bejma he decided to withdraw his proposal because "Detroit is not ready for it." I was disappointed, to say the least. At that time Commissioner Coleman expressed his interested in drafting a proposal for a CAO to be presented at the next meeting. I'm still hopeful that a discussion will take place and interested to see what the proposal will suggest.