After six years on the job, Salem's City Manager, Steve Powers, is returning to Michigan -- where he served as the Ann Arbor City Administrator for four years before coming to Oregon.
Sure, the blog posts I've written about Powers include a number of times that I've criticized him or called him a liar. But that comes with the territory at City Hall. All bureaucrats make mistakes and shade the truth now and then. And Powers is very much a traditional bureaucrat.
He makes the trains run on time. Or at least he would, if Salem had trains.
As a citizen observer of Powers, I've found him likable -- in much the same way I like vanilla ice cream. A safe and dependable choice, but not exciting. I bet most people in Salem couldn't name the City Manager.
Which probably is one reason why the Mayor and City Council have viewed Powers positively. Publicly, he stays in the background, letting the elected officials take center stage on controversial issues.
Here's my problem with that.
Behind the scenes, the City Manager wields a lot of power (whether or not their last name is Powers). Salem's mayor and city councilors are unpaid volunteers. They have zero staff, and little ability to even ask questions of City of Salem employees, much less tell them what to do.
Yes, the City Council establishes policies. But the City Manager can slow walk those policies, or even work to undermine them.
A good example is how the now-dead Third Bridge was kept alive by city staff for much longer than it deserved, even after it was clear that the progressive majority on the City Council was opposed to what I liked to call the Billion Dollar Boondoggle.
So since the City Council is responsible for hiring the next City Manager, I'm hoping they choose someone who is more like a dynamic corporate CEO and less like a bureaucratic functionary.
CEOs typically answer to a board of directors. They aren't royalty, able to do whatever they want. However, they're the public face of a corporation. They're cheerleaders for what the corporation is trying to achieve.
I readily admit that this sort of person probably isn't what many members of the City Council want in a City Manager. I also acknowledge that Salem has had some imperious City Managers -- such as Linda Norris -- who were worse than a faceless top administrator.
My dream just is for a City Manager who can excite citizens with a tantalizing vision of what sort of city Salem could become. Prosperous. Fun. Creative. Leader in green energy. Safe bike paths everywhere. A more people-friendly downtown.
This kind of City Manager might take some attention away from elected officials.
However, if they are energetically working to implement the policy directions of the City Council, that would be a small price to pay for their dynamism and vision.
There also needs to be a shakeup of some department heads, notably Peter Fernandez, the Public Works Director, who should have been fired a long time ago.