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home : news : putnam   May 29, 2016

2/8/2013 5:08:00 AM
Making a case for city manager

Princeton water superintendent Mike Eggers (from front left), Mayor Keith Cain and city manager Jeff Clawson share a laugh at an informal budget planning session this winter.NewsTribune photo/Craig Sterrett
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Princeton water superintendent Mike Eggers (from front left), Mayor Keith Cain and city manager Jeff Clawson share a laugh at an informal budget planning session this winter.

NewsTribune photo/Craig Sterrett
Craig Sterrett
News Editor

As voters in Peru prepare to choose from four mayoral candidates, Spring Valley from three hopefuls and Utica from two, the question will be which of these men can best manage the municipality?
But in most mayoral elections in the Illinois Valley, another question is rarely asked:
Is there a better way to run a city?
Keith Cain is mayor of Princeton and was elected partly because he knows how to manage a business, Princeton Redi-Mix. He handles mayoral duties such as presiding over city council meetings, casting tie-breaking votes, and meeting with his congressman and potential developers or employers, if he’s needed.
But Princeton is one of the few cities in the region that has a city manager. Princeton made the change in fall 2002, and Cain thinks it’s the best way to do things.
“There’s a lot of things a city manager brings to the table,” that a typical mayor wouldn’t have time or ability to handle, Cain said before a recent budget meeting. “A lot of times they’re there to take that phone call during the day. There’s not that delay in communication.”
After election in 1999, Cain began pushing for the city to put in place a city manager. He had learned that in 1955, voters had approved a city manager form of government, but none ever was hired. In 1971, according to News-Tribune archives, voters in a nonbinding referendum opposed the city manager form, but that did not take the 1955 documents off the books.
“The only way to abandon the council-manager form is through a properly-called referendum after the city has operated four years with a city manager,” city attorney John Isaacson told the council on a night in 2002 when two commissioners voted against hiring a manager, and David Monier and current commissioner Bob Warren voted to start the search, with mayor Cain casting a tie-breaking vote.
Cain favors having a city manager to be able to make sound managerial decisions at the moment they are needed, and to be able to give solid answers the moment calls come in from out of town. He indicated a city manager is good to have when developers come to town or when potential employers who are looking for a place to locate come calling and want answers right away on infrastructure that is in place, tax incentives or how a Tax Increment Financing district may work for them.
Cain also likes that a mayor in a town with a manager-council form of government is less likely to be elected simply by promising or appearing to promise jobs to supporters. Having a certified city manager should help alleviate the specter of patronage.
“We don’t run it the old-style type of government,” Cain said.
Princeton, like Oglesby and Ottawa, has a city council comprised of commissioners who are administrators of sorts for city departments. Cain said the mayor can help handle personnel issues, and commissioners can be called upon to handle certain decisions, but some of those decisions are likely to come more quickly and, perhaps, from a person with more training, if there’s a city administrator.
“That doesn’t mean the mayor and the council don’t get their calls,” Cain said.
Princeton wastewater treatment plant operator Tim Forristall said he is glad to work for a city with a manager on duty.
“I believe there’s a person of contact we can go directly to,” Forristall said.
Current Princeton city manager Jeff Clawson said if, for example, the water superintendent and wastewater superintendent were unwilling to work together or if they were making redundant purchases, the city manager could step in immediately and clean up the situation. He said he’s partial, but thinks nobody would imagine a school district operating without a superintendent, so why would a city operate without a full-time administrator?
“Generally, the city manager in a city is a CEO,” he said. More specifically, it’s a chief administrative officer. “The city manager has 100 percent authorization to handle all hiring and all firing. There’s an efficiency in that.”
Cost of employing a manager as well as accountability of a manager often are cited as drawbacks to the council-manager form of government. However, Clawson said in his case, he is capable of drawing up many basic ordinances, making council-approved alterations to boilerplate ordinances, annual bond abatement papers and documents for which a city often pays an attorney an hourly rate. In addition, city managers can be removed by the elected council at any time.
The manager takes care of creating the budget and many can write applications for grants for which cities often pay an engineer or lawyer. He said he just received an e-mail to prepare for vote a tax abatement ordinance that could otherwise cost a city up to $600. He said Princeton does not need to hire TIF experts, usually lawyers, because that is one of his areas of expertise.
He also takes care of rate evaluations and takes on assignments for which a city might occasionally need to pay for a study.
Streator has the only city manager in La Salle County. That manager, Paul Nicholson, is an example of how a city manager is accountable to the elected officials. After being first hired by Streator in 2000, he was publicly fired by the city council in 2003 and eventually was rehired in 2006.
He is in his 42nd year as a municipal administrator, having earned his master’s degree in public administration from Northern Illinois University after finishing a tour with the Army in Vietnam in 1968. He helps the city save money — and helps offset his salary — by drafting the majority of Streator’s ordinances and resolutions, looking over development plans and specifications, with the help of a full-time city engineer, and occasionally finding new cost-saving programs or challenging longstanding, money-wasting practices.
“It’s a great advantage if a community is able to afford to hire a professional (manager),” Nicholson said.
Some cities are running just fine the way they’re set up. The elected treasurer or finance commissioner may take care of budgeting, for example. Some have an on-staff economic developer to communicate at any time with developers or potential employers looking at land and buildings in town. Some have full-time engineers.
“Everybody has a different view of it. We have a $25 million organization here in Princeton; someone has to be at the point,” Clawson said. “They have to be responsive, whatever that means to that city.”
He said whether a mayor is full-time as well as his or her capabilities, and the way a government is set up, affects whether a city needs a city manager, or a city administrator, which is what Wenona has.
“I would say, bottom line, it’s important you have qualified people who understand how the world works today compared to 30, 40, 50 years ago,”
Dawn Peters, Northern Illinois University-based Illinois City/County Management Association executive director, said helping Princeton set up a council-manager system was fairly easy since voters already had approved it.
“The city of Freeport has tried three times to pass the council-manager form and has failed three times,” Peters said.
She said the fact that the city manager stays in place past the term of the mayor is one strength of the council-manager form of government. The newly-elected city council and mayor, however, can choose a new manager if they wish, but in the interim, there’s a manager in charge regardless.
“Having a professional manager … brings some continuity. It brings professionalism,” Peters said.
It also can make a difference when industrial firms or other employers are looking for communities in which to locate.
“People want some stability when they’re looking at a community. They want to know who they’re going to deal with and that everybody is on the same page and they will be dealt with professionally,” Peters said.

Craig Sterrett can be reached at (815) 220-6935 or

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