Caring for the homeless, easing racial tensions and creating a healthy national economy are not the jobs of Congress but of local governments, and city managers play important roles in helping to accomplish those goals.
That was the message of Michael Gleason, city manager of Eugene, Ore., at today's 43rd annual City Management Conference at Kansas University. Gleason addressed approximately 125 city officials in a session this morning entitled "The Future of City Management."
Gleason said that people who want to be heard and who want to solve problems should stop looking so much to Washington, D.C., and start looking in their own backyards.
"To me, democracy is in Eugene, Oregon, in Lawrence, Kansas, in Topeka or wherever people can address their grievances and meet essential human needs," he said. "Democracy is individual, human, personal."
THAT'S where city managers and the governing bodies they assist can make a difference, Gleason said, but many in the profession might have to re-evaluate their role in the community before that happens.
"I feel the profession runs the risk of becoming ossified, codified and irrelevant," Gleason said. "We will become simply a practice of how to mow the lawn, how to pave the streets and how to run the council meeting."
However, Gleason warned, city managers should be careful not to overestimate their role in bringing improvements to their communities.
"Over the years, the citizens have bludgeoned me to understanding that I am supposed to be the instrument for meeting the essential needs in their daily lives. I'm not the music," Gleason said.
ERNIE MOSHER, executive director of the League of Kansas Municipalities, echoed Gleason in stressing the importance of citizen input.
Mosher said city officials often were reluctant to support long-range projects, choosing instead to make differences that can be seen immediately with the hope of getting re-elected. But citizens groups concerned about specific issues often will push local governments to see things in a more long-term perspective, Mosher said.
Mike Wildgen, Lawrence city manager, said that he, too, thought it important to get citizen task forces involved, even though city officials didn't always appreciate the input.
"It's frustrating sometimes because it takes longer to get things done, but city employees should understand that they will still get some of their ideas put into place," Wildgen said. "Patience is a virtue. I learned that from the city manager selection process."