A referendum on city manager?

Published 11:41 pm Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Selena Cuffee-Glenn wasn’t on the ballot in Suffolk Tuesday, but the election’s outcome — still uncertain when this column was written — will reveal much about the city manager’s public standing.

Readers of this column presumably have seen the front page already. A story at the top of the page about victories by City Council incumbents and Cuffee-Glenn allies Charles Brown, Jeff Gardy and Charles Parr would represent a solid citizen endorsement of the city manager, whose diminutive stature belies the power she wields around City Hall. The large and controversial pay raise the City Council gave her a couple of years ago spoke to council members’ support of Cuffee-Glenn and their willingness to go out on a political limb for her.

Conversely, wins by challengers Leroy Bennett, Don Goldberg and Tim Johnson would signal a desire for more independent thinking on the council, at whose pleasure the city manager serves.

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Of the many forms of municipal governance, Suffolk’s council-manager system is my strong preference. The day-to-day details of running a city are best tended by an unelected professional administrator. Suffolk’s prosperity and stability, most recently rewarded with a coveted AAA bond rating, speak to the effectiveness of Cuffee-Glenn’s management.

Critics, however, believe Cuffee-Glenn goes beyond management of city government and exerts too much influence on policymaking, which should be entirely the job of the City Council, whose members are directly accountable to the people. If Brown, Gardy and Parr lost Tuesday, it was an emphatic rejection of the manager-council “clique” that has been impenetrable for the past six years.

Most citizens want from their council representative an open ear and an open mind. It’s the reason that many are repulsed by extreme partisanship in Washington, D.C., where party loyalty often is put above personal conviction. In Suffolk, it’s loyalty to the city manager that many voters resent.

Brown did himself, his council colleagues and Cuffee-Glenn no favors last week with his declaration during a candidate forum that the city manager has been the victim of racism and sexism by disgruntled citizens. Besides the preposterous comment, Brown showed another unattractive quality in a public servant: a thin skin.

Steve Stewart is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is steve.stewart@suffolknewsherald.com.