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The Crisis in City Government [ THE LOCAL OFFICIAL: CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE We are living in uncertain times. Inflation, recession, and climbing unemployment are front-page news. Citizen concern mounts steadily over crime in the streets, racial unrest, inadequate housing, educational systems in turmoil, and the plight of the elderly and poor. At the focal point of this economic and social uncertainty are our cities, where, battered on one side by these continuing crises and on the other by rising public expectations, local officials are caught in the middle. They wear many titles—such as city council member, city or county commissioner, or county supervisor—but their concerns are the same whatever they do. What is the best way to cope with municipal problems? How can priorities be determined? Where can money be found to do the job? Does public confidence in government need to be restored? To get answers to these and other critical questions, TEMPO talked with key officials from four US local governments of varying size, population mix, and location: • Edmund D. Edelman, county supervisor, Los Angeles County, Pop. 7,000,000 • Earl Harris, president, Newark Municipal Council, Newark, N.J., Pop. 375,000 • Robert Richter, alderman, Sheboygan, Wise, Pop. 50,000 • Harold F. Hunter, Jr., chairman, city commission, Rome, Ga., Pop. 32,000 These public servants, some full time, some part time, share one common objective: to upgrade the quality of life in their cities and to provide the best possible service to the public at the lowest possible cost. How well are they meeting this goal? Their responses to the following questions reveal some interesting insights. , What frustrations do local officials live with on a day-to-day basis? Earl Harris, full-time city council president in the struggling city of Newark, may have the toughest job of all. "A major problem is the public's lack of understanding about the way a city government functions," he says. "We could operate much more effectively if we could confine our work to 1 planning and legislation, as the charter defines our job. But people get on our backs about everything—from garbage and street paving to stray cats—and this eats into our precious time." What is needed, Mr. Harris believes, is public education. He wants to initiate a direct-mail campaign about how city governments operate. Newspaper ads will not work, he feels, because an influx of uneducated people in recent years—paralleled by a middleclass exodus—has resulted in too many citizens who can't or won't read the papers. A rash of individuals and groups constantly camps on a councilman's doorstep, bearing an endless variety of causes, programs, and projects. This is as true in Georgia as in New Jersey. For Harold Hunter, the biggest frustration is also the lack of time—the impossibility of getting everything done that needs to be done. "Much as you'd like t o , " he says, "you can't say yes to everything. Under Georgia law, for example, cities aren't permitted to contribute to charitable programs." He cites a middle- and low-income section of town which needs a recreational facility. The city could have bought property and made it available to a nonprofit organization on a free-lease basis. But investigation revealed this would be considered a charitable gift; and as a city commissioner, he would be held personally liable. What hurt most of all, he confides, is that he himself comes from that section of town. Another aspect of city government distresses Sheboygan's Robert Richter: the undue pressure from self-interest groups. "The more powerful the group," he says, "the greater the pressure." He refers to a continuing conflict between impressive looking schools and better quality schooling. " O n the one hand," he says, " I recall the caliber of education that existed in some of the old, rural, inexpensive schoolhouses. And I compare some of the big, costly, streamlined buildings of today. It makes you wonder at times. Are the youngsters really better off today?" Whatever the answer, he says, it takes courage to make an honest, objective evaluation. And it takes even more fortitude for a public servant to stand firm under the flak that is almost sure to result, whatever decision he makes. The fourth official, Edmund Edelman, is now a member of Los Angeles County's five-man board of supervisors, which covers 78 separate cities including the city of Los Angeles. This county is the nation's largest in both population and government expenditure. It is the foremost example of the fast-growing "urban counties" that increasingly administer functions associated with cities but do so on a metropolitan scale. Prior to joining the board, Mr. Edelman was a Los Angeles city councilman for nine and one-half years. "What would get to me in that j o b , " he confides, "were the limitations of the office. I just wasn't as free as I wanted to be to address such broad county issues as pollution, tax reform, and transportation." Now, three months later, it is difficult for him to make a judgment about his new job. "I haven't been here long enough to feel frustrated. I am just 51
Local official: Caught in the middle
Edelman, Edmund D.
Hunter, Harold F.
Municipal officials and employees
|Abstract||Photographs not included in Web version|
Tempo, Vol. 21, no. 2 (1975), p. 51-55
|Source||Originally published by: Touche Ross, & Co.|
|Rights||Copyright and permission to republish held by: Deloitte|
|Format||PDF page image with corrected OCR scanned at 400 dpi|
|Collection||Deloitte Digital Collection|
|Digital Publisher||University of Mississippi Library. Accounting Collection|