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John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Passing the Buck

Every student of American history knows about the sign on President Truman's desk, which read, "The Buck Stops Here!" This slogan resonates with us in America. We like decisive leaders, and leaders who own their decisions. We don't care for leaders who dither, procrastinate, and prevaricate; nor do we like leaders who point the finger when their own decisions (or indecision) don't bring the good results hoped for. No one is perfect, but we all learn from our mistakes — and we wonder if someone who disowns his own errors, oversights and misjudgements can learn anything from them.

A recent entry in the blog of City Councilmember Will Rossbach calls our attention to the latest example of finger-pointing in our city government. A lower-level city employee has been formally reprimanded by the city manager for not knowing the legal requirements of the "60-day rule" for notifying a developer that an application was denied by the city council majority. The lack of this formal notice is a key issue in CoPar's lawsuit against Maplewood; it might be the issue on which the whole decision turns. Rather than accepting responsibility for the city's error, city manager Copeland passed the buck, placing the blame on an underling.

After mulling over the situation, Rossbach suggests that perhaps letters of reprimand should be added to the files of all the managers above this individual, including the city manager. I think Will stops one step short. The city council majority is due a harsh reprimand as well.

Even if you excuse Cave, Hjelle and Longrie their personal ignorance of the statute's requirements in this situation (which is perfectly understandable), this council majority can't duck responsibility for selecting Copeland as city manager and Kantrud as city attorney. Those two direct council appointees are responsible for supervising the lower-level staff and advising the city on its legal obligations. Competence in those offices would make any alleged neglect by lower-level city officials in this case irrelevant. The city manager should have put a written statement on the agenda for the following meeting for the council to formally approve. When he failed to do so, the city attorney should have brought the omission to the council's attention, since it's his job to know the law and provide such legal guidance to the council.

Perhaps some people on staff knew what needed to be done, but were afraid to stick their necks out by, in effect, telling the city manager how to do his job. (Remember how the human resources director was fired last year after insisting that the city obey its own ordinances with regard to a mandatory background check.) If this were the case, I still think the ultimate responsibility falls upon the city council majority and their appointed manager, whose approach to governance has made the atmosphere in city hall so poisonous over the past year.

The importance of a professional city manager is most clear not in the day-to-day matters, where any old person might do, but in the marginal cases where a reservoir of experience and knowledge keeps the city from even getting into problems like this in the first place.

I've already suggested that Maplewood needs to replace the current city manager with a qualified, competent professional. This is yet another example where Copeland's inexperience and lack of qualifications in running a city is failing both Maplewood and even the council majority that appointed him.

The city council has the power to remove the city manager, as they did his predecessor. However, at every step so far, Cave, Longrie and Hjelle have reaffirmed their support of Mr. Copeland. They did so with a vote of confidence after reviewing his background check (which clearly showed his lack of qualifications); they did it again with the 2 AM vote to cancel the search for a professional manager and install Copeland permanently (a vote which took place after this CoPar notification was botched, and at a point when it was becoming clear even to outside observers that Copeland's budgetary process was a mess).

In May the council will be reviewing Mr. Copeland's performance. Will he be held accountable for his failures? Or will it be up to the voters in November to bring accountability to City Hall?


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