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Larry Deetjen: Pro or Politico? - Updated 11/09/04

About 90 years ago, a new idea began to sweep through cities across America. The first major American city to adopt the idea was Dayton, Ohio. This was the city manager form of city government.

Today, half of U.S. cities and towns have professional managers. Many counties have hired pros to run their administrative agencies. Two-thirds of cities the size of Deerfield Beach are run by city managers.

Municipal authority is delegated to cities by the state to enable them to protect and promote the health, safety, and morals of the community. This is an awesome power in the latitude it gives to political authorities.

In general, municipal power divides into three parts. First, the city is empowered to establish rules to preserve the civil order. Such rules include the zoning laws and building codes applicable in the city. One might think of this as the "policy" -- "political" -- function.

The second part comprises the business-like services provided by the city to its residents, some of which may even be paid for directly by the consumers in the form of user fees. When the city manager system was proposed, service operations in most cities were expanding and becoming more complex. It seemed to make sense to hire qualified professionals, experts in finance and city administration, operating outside the political sphere, to make sure the job was done right. Policy functions, however, would be the business of the elected council.

Law enforcement, the third part of the general municipal power, was also generally seen as a function to be handled by professional administrators, but in the case of Deerfield Beach, most of law-enforcement has been hired out.

So the idea behind the city manager form is simple and sensible: Policy is made by elected public officials who hire people specifically trained in public administration to run the day-to-day functions of the municipality and to enforce the rules established by the governing board of the city.

The strongest selling point of the city manager form was that it would be non-political. The operation of the city would be fair and impartial, business-like, customer-oriented, and unhindered by the inefficiencies of privilege, nepotism, and political influence.

The problem is, that many city managers are now as political as the strong mayors that they replaced. This is certainly true in the City of Deerfield Beach.

The main factor in the process of politicization, in the case of Deerfield Beach, seems to be the aggressive entry of the city into the business of redeveloping the barrier island, although other operations are affected. Redevelopment, when it is politically inspired, is a highly political issue.

Land-use, to the extent it is regulated, is essentially a matter of policy and enforcement. Cities lay down rules reflecting the traditions and values of the community as to where people live, trade, farm, and build things. Development, while itself not necessarily proscribed, must take place within the legal framework of zoning laws, building codes, and comprehensive plans. This process, and the determinations of what is best for the community, including how elastic these rules should be to preserve the rights of landowners, is inherently political.

When a city adopts a more proactive position with respect to development, based upon the rationale of a public purpose to increase city revenues, then the city itself becomes a business and enters into a business relationship with developers and landowners. Redevelopment of the barrier island, for example, is no longer driven by markets and economic feasibility, but mostly is the exercise of raw political power which has little or no accountability to voters, regardless of long-term impact, and potentially without sound economic rationale.

This is what has happened in Deerfield Beach and neither Mr. Deetjen, the city manager, nor the city commission have been able or willing to put things back into balance. In the estimation of some people, Mr. Deetjen has become a paid dictator.

When the city commission proclaimed itself a community redevelopment agency, it not only embraced the idea of promoting massive development on the barrier island, but it also committed itself to maximizing the potential worth of the island to developers and others who would profit. The administration of the CRA is assigned to the city manager.

Clearly, the value of the beach area of Deerfield Beach to landowners and developers depends on what they can do with what they own. The more they can do, the higher they can go, the more space they can use, the more they can make. Also, the more tax revenue the city can take in.

Additionally, the lower the costs of their enterprises, the more developers can profit. This is where the CRA comes into the picture.

The CRA reduces the cost of redevelopment in two ways. First, it pushes out established landowners by increasing their tax burden. Many landowners are forced to sell out to developers in a buyers' market. Second, the CRA reinvests tax increments, including those on speculation, into infrastructure improvements within the target area. In other words, the CRA pays the impact costs of redevelopment.

For example, let's say that the city builds a new and wider road to service new restaurants along the North Beach to ease traffic congestion caused in part by the restaurants. The road is paid for with tax increments, grants, and other money borrowed against future tax increment funds. Taxpayers, not the developers, pay the bill to mitigate the impact of new businesses on the community.

The community also shoulders the social costs of redevelopment. In the case of Deerfield Beach, this includes traffic congestion, reduced accessibility to the beach, diminished aesthetics, and political corruption. Taxpayers may even bear more of the financial impact of redevelopment under a CRA, as tax increments do not pay for the increased demands on water supply, services, or infrastructure outside the CRA.

On paper, the CRA looks like a neat little package, but it would be a nicer package if the community actually supported this extensive a redevelopment of the barrier island. It is evident from the results of the three referendum elections held since 1998 which involved redevelopment issues that the public does not support the effort.

Because public support is weak and may erode further as the contingent problems of redevelopment become clearer, the city manager and the redevelopment axis on the commission are in a sense forced to rely on means which set aside political principle to achieve the CRA goals. In fact, if principle had anything to do with redevelopment, then the effort would have been abandoned years ago when it became obvious that there was no "community vision" which corresponded with what Mr. Deetjen wants to do.

Thus, the city manager, as the chief booster of beach redevelopment, has become a political official. This is in total contradiction to what professional management of city governments is supposed to be about. Even the competence of city government under Deetjen has come into question because of the poor planning decisions made by his administration. It is not always clear whether such decisions are evidence of incompetence or evidence of collusion with developers.

There are measures that could restore political principle to city government and the proper balance of power between elected officials and the city manager. These would include the restoration of term limits; charter provisions to insure that citizens have access to public records, are informed of official actions in a timely fashion, and have full opportunity to be heard if they wish to speak; a code of ethics; and an independent commission to adjudicate questions arising under the code.

These are important elements of reform that provide a blueprint for better government.

It is submitted that any reform agenda should also include consideration of the arrangement of executive and legislative power at City Hall. In Deerfield Beach, voters should be asked whether they want to keep the city manager form of government.

The idea of replacing the city manager with an elected executive may seem unthinkable, a radical reversal of the reform movement that lead to the adoption of professional management of city government. The reform movement was driven by the desire for better government and ending political corruption. Opponents of a movement to "reform the reform" would unquestionably accuse the movers of trying to restore an era when cities were (in legend) run by drunken, corrupt, gormless politicians.

This is a new century. Now, the calculus for reform may be different, in fact diametrical to past concerns, because of the city's intense involvement in redevelopment and the record of the city administration in working around, rather than for, the citizens on this issue. Accountability to the voters is the key. As stated by H. George Frederickson, a distinguished scholar of public administration, "Today, issues of political responsiveness are as important as efficiency and economy."

Further, the adoption of a "strong mayor" form of city government does not mean that city departments would not be managed by professional administrators. In fact, more that one-third of strong mayor cities have hired an administrator with academic credentials and experience similar to Mr. Deetjen to serve under the mayor.

What the realignment of executive authority to an elected official does is to establish direct accountability of the city's chief executive to the citizens. The sad fact is that the city manager now can do almost anything without the fear of discipline or termination.

Of course, nothing guarantees better government or better leadership. Voters can elect incompetents or crooks to the office of mayor and the commission. The hopeful view is that better people will step forward to serve the community as elected officials, if the reform process moves forward.