By Debra F. Jones
One of the greatest honors that I have had as one of your City Council members is the pleasure of being asked by multiple Boy Scout troops in our area, to teach their Citizenship in the Community merit badge. It’s such a pleasure because you can see their eagerness to learn and look forward to the tough questions that they always ask.
As the City Council recently reviewed the City Charter for possible revisions, it became apparent that the average citizen may not know the specifics about how our city government works. Every city is a little different.
In Williston Citizenship 101 it begins with the fact that our City government is directed by our City Charter, which was voted into existence by our residents sometime around 1958. It’s this charter that lays out the foundation for how the city operates… the organization chart, if you will.
The Charter establishes that the city is governed by five City Council members and a mayor. These five council members are charged with setting the policies and procedures that serve in the best interest of our citizens. The mayor is designated as the person who supervises the administration of the police and fire departments, and approves the hiring of police officers, as budgeted by the City Council. The mayor is also recognized as the head of the city government for ceremonial purposes and in case of military law. He can also approve or veto any ordinance passed by the City Council. If the mayor should veto an ordinance, the City Council would have to override his veto by a four-fifths vote to pass it. What most people don’t know is that our mayor can not make a motion, second a motion or vote on any issue. The president of the City Council presides over all meetings.
Charter Officers designated in the Charter are the city manager, the city clerk and the city attorney. These officers are appointed by the City Council and serve at the pleasure of the council.
The city manager is specifically tasked by the charter to carry out all city ordinances and administrative policies as set by the City Council, except the police and fire departments that come under the mayor, and the office of the City Clerk. In a city manager-form-of-government it is the city manager that hires and fires any city employee under his supervision. He also prepares and submits the annual budget and keeps the council fully advised as to the financial condition and future needs of the city. His job is to run the city on a day-to-day basis using those administrative policies and procedures given to him by the City Council. According to the charter, the City Council can not dictate the hiring or firing of any city employee, except for the charter officers themselves.
I can tell you that when I first became a member of the City Council, we had no city manager, even though our charter said we should. We eventually did promote our director of utilities to fulfill our charter requirements and he became our first city administrator. The City Council had to drag me kicking and screaming into the city manager-form-of-government. I was use to the City Council not only setting policy, but also directing the day-to-day operations of the city departments. Having moved from an excellent first city manager to city manager #2 who didn’t fit our city very well and now to city manager #3 – I can say that I am now a supporter of the city manager-form-of-government. It helps to have the right person for the job in that office and now we do.
When we hired Marcus Collins to be our city manager two years ago, the City Council gave him two directives to help us best serve the city residents and business owners. He was asked to get our city budget under control, so we could stop taking money out of reserves to cover essential services such as police and fire, and begin actually putting money back into that rainy day fund. We also asked him to find a way to lower the city’s portion of the property tax and decrease the burden on our tax payers. City Manager Collins, along with the City Council, has accomplished many things to this end in just two years. And I don’t mind telling you ….. some of it hasn’t been easy, but I believe that it has been a move in the right direction for the citizens of Williston.
Even with the economy as bad as it has been over the last two years, we have been able to accomplish some great things under the direction of Mr. Collins.
• The 2009-2010 budget was reduced by approximately $505,000 from the prior year.
• $650,000 grant to repair and upgrade the water system
• $231,600 grant to repair and upgrade city buildings at City Hall, the Police Department and the City Library
• $250,000 grant to repair and upgrade the sewer plant
• Contracted out garbage service to save approximately $80,000/Yr and lower resident’s bills by a total of $24,000/Yr.
• Reduced 2009/2010 and 2010/2011 city property taxes by lowering the millage rate
• Re-roofed the City Library
• Paved five city streets in 2010 with 10 more scheduled for 2011
• Upcoming $550,000 grant for parallel taxiway at the airport
• Two new businesses at airport
The complete list totaling over $2.7 million is available at City Hall.
I’m proud to say that the city was presented with a balanced budget at our first budget hearing this year. How many cities or counties can say that? None that I know of. I can also tell you that it wasn’t easy. Some of those decisions were hard to make, but that’s what you have asked us to do. I hear you saying that you want lower taxes, lower electric bills and at the same time….no decrease in the services you need, like police, fire, library, parks and recreation. That’s why we are justifying every dollar being spent for legal expenses, engineering, auditing fees and planning services.
I think we have the best city manager for the job in the office and a capable City Council to follow his recommendations. Even if it’s not the easy thing to do, it's definitely the right thing to do for our citizens.
Debra French Jones is a member of the Williston City Council and its vice president.