City manager and stoplights

The answer is a resounding “yes” to the question “Does Elkins Need a City Manager,” posed by the Elkins City Clerk recently. A clue to the answer to Jessica Sutton’s rhetorical question may be found in the letter-to-the-editor from Barrett M. Williams, which was juxtaposed to her column on the Op-Ed page of the same paper (April 28). That letter argued that the city should have kept its old Darby stop lights retrofitting them to meet today’s safety standards.

A city manager trained to professionally manage the multi-million-dollar corporate operation that the city of Elkins is could have identified the potential that the stop lights offered and directed a coordinated action to secure funding and design strategies for them and thus preserve them as an integral part of Elkins downtown streetscape.

Essentially the city executive has five functions that are very diverse in the tasks they perform.

These are financial headed by the City Treasurer, record keeping and elections headed by the City Clerk, street and utility services headed by the Operations Manager, law enforcement headed by the Chief of Police, and fire protection headed by the Fire Chief. As the city government is now set up there is no central professional administrative head who has sole responsibility for coordinating the functions of all five of these branches.

Currently the mayor is essentially charged with two tasks. The first is to act as the nominal head of the administration and of the council (the mayor appoints committees and breaks tie votes).

In the second task, he or she serves as an official representative of the city at social, political, and economic events.

Let’s use the stop light letter as an example of how this works. Nominally the stop lights would be a mechanical function of the Operations Manager, a law enforcement function of the Chief of Police, a financial function (to pay for retrofitting, etc.) of the Treasurer.

In this case, elected officials including the Mayor and many of the Council Members, put extensive effort into trying to preserve the lights and to coordinate all activities involved to keep them as a functional part of downtown Elkins. We were unsuccessful.

At the time the lights were removed (at the urging of the West Virginia Department of Highways), had the Mayor and Council had the opportunity of directing a City Manager to review the specific requirements for retrofitting the lights and identifying the revenue sources to pay for them, a different result might have been forthcoming.

This instance is only one of many of Elkins losing out because there was no one citywide professional administrator in charge who could assume responsibility for carrying out management responsibilities on a citywide basis.

It is true, and I know this from personal experience, that Elkins has had some superb department heads over the years who have been very conscientious and hardworking and in many cases produced near miracles with relatively little funding.

This is not to say also that individual city council members do not put a lot of time and effort into city government. They do. And many of them have spent enumerable hours trying to make the city work. But their job is not administrative. It is legislative, setting the policies that reflect the collective will of the citizens of Elkins and our democracy. That is their first and foremost responsibility.

Meanwhile, in the absence of a qualified city manager who can coordinate functions across a broad spectrum of municipal activities, Elkins is losing out, as witnessed by the Darby stoplights on Davis Avenue which ended up refurbished and reutilized in Greenwood, Mississippi.

— Talbott is a former mayor of Elkins.