Raleigh City Council looks to improve communications after last year’s controversies

ccampbell@newsobserver.comJanuary 30, 2014 

— In the wake of last year’s tensions with the ousted city manager and some staffers, the Raleigh City Council spent the first day of its two-day retreat Thursday looking to improve communications in city hall.

Council members repeatedly cited communication failures when they fired longtime City Manager Russell Allen and replaced him with Ruffin Hall. Solving such problems took center stage at Thursday’s retreat, which was held in Raleigh – not Wilmington – because of the snow.

“Don’t have an attitude that you’re going to outlast me and you’re going to do what you want no matter what I say,” Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said, citing a specific encounter she had with an unnamed employee. “There are a couple of staff members that are very resistant.”

For their part, top city employees said they’ve dealt with some council members who contact several staff members, seeking out opinions that support their agenda.

“Don’t opinion-shop among staff,” assistant city manager Dan Howe said. “This has been somewhat of a problem in the past.”

At issue is each council member’s level of authority over city employees, nearly all of whom report to the manager. City Council members can’t take action without a majority vote, but email records last year indicated that some members wanted a more hands-on role in operations, meeting directly with department heads and seeking more information about city actions.

Last summer, Councilman Russ Stephenson had a heated exchange with top city planners, saying they failed to respond to a developer’s questions.

At Thursday’s meeting, some council members said they’d like to request detailed research from city employees before addressing a topic with the full council. Councilman Thomas Crowder said that requiring a majority consensus before studying an issue could kill worthwhile ideas.

“A lot of ordinances I moved forward to help my district, they might have never gotten off the ground,” he said. “You may find out it’s not as controversial as you think.”

But others cautioned against piling onto city employees’ workload for a project that might not have much support. “There needs to be some kind of consensus when it’s a major issue,” Baldwin said.

Unenforced laws

The council also discussed Raleigh’s laws that don’t get enforced, pointing to the police crackdown on homeless food handouts in Moore Square last August. A rule on the books for years banned food distributions, but police suddenly began enforcing the ban, prompting a nationwide outcry.

That kind of shift merits a look from the City Council, some said. “If they had sought guidance from us on that, it would have been done differently,” Councilman Wayne Maiorano said.

But that doesn’t mean elected leaders don’t want employees to weigh in. “I don’t want them to tell me what they think they’re supposed to tell me,” Mayor Nancy McFarlane said. “I want them to tell me what they honestly believe. ... I’ve heard, ‘We didn’t think y’all would vote that way,’ but no one from staff stood up and said, ‘We don’t think this is a good idea.’ 

Streamlined process

Council members said they’d like to streamline the process for getting questions answered, though they stopped short of an idea floated at a 2012 retreat: hiring more administrative assistants for the council. A budget-friendly solution, they said, might be partnering with local colleges for internships.

And Hall, who’s entering his third month on the job, offered some ideas of his own for improving communication. He’s planning to start a weekly memo updating the council on what’s happening in city hall and answering leaders’ questions. He said he has noticed some difficulties in tracking what council members ask for.

Council members said the extended conversations this week should help council members work better with one another, Hall and the city’s employees.

“I think we have a really good team,” McFarlane said. “I’m going to do a better job of working as a team, and I hope you’ll help.”

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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