Sunset Hills officials still debating whether city administrator needed

Mayors of nearby cities say city administrator necessary

Mayor Mark Furrer being sworn in last year. Pictured from left are Ward 1 Alderman Richard Gau, Furrer, Ward 4 Alderman Donna Ernst and acting board President Tom Musich as they were sworn in by former City Clerk Laura Rider last year.

Mayor Mark Furrer being sworn in last year. Pictured from left are Ward 1 Alderman Richard Gau, Furrer, Ward 4 Alderman Donna Ernst and acting board President Tom Musich as they were sworn in by former City Clerk Laura Rider last year.

By Gloria Lloyd

Sunset Hills officials are still debating whether to hire a city administrator instead of relying on department heads and volunteer committees to run the city, with some in favor and some saying the city is just fine the way it is.

The conversation came up after longtime City Clerk Laura Rider left the city in April for the same position in Ladue. In her absence, city officials have found that Rider performed many of the duties that a city administrator would, along with serving as the city’s finance director.

For the interim, Deputy City Clerk Carol Lay has added city clerk to her court administrator duties, and Assistant Finance Director Tina Heischmidt is taking over finances.

On the recommendation of a human-resources consultant who presented to the Personnel Committee last week, officials will hear a presentation on how it might work to have a city administrator run the city.

Moving forward to explore that possibility was also the consensus of the city officials who attended a joint meeting of the Finance and Personnel committees last month to consider whether the city could afford a city administrator.

At that meeting, Mayor Mark Furrer told the committees that although he argued against hiring a city administrator when former Mayor John Hunzeker made that suggestion to aldermen by email, he is open to the possibility. But he added that he just hasn’t seen any reason to “add another layer of fat” or change things from the way the city has always been run.

“To have an administrator with a four-department city where it’s run fine, I’ve not heard a reason why we think we need it, other than somebody thinks we do or Laura’s left,” Furrer said, noting that surrounding cities may have city administrators but they are also much more complex, with more departments and employees than Sunset Hills. “We’ve got four department heads now, and you’d be laying a direct layer over them again — the (Board of Aldermen) still oversees the city administrator, so they will still micromanage them as they do the department heads … Nobody’s told me we need to add another layer because of x, y and z.”

In some ways, Rider already took on many of the duties that a city administrator would, officials from both committees noted.

In the past when the Finance Committee began its budgeting process, department heads turned in pie-in-the-sky dream budgets, so the committee became the “axman” to pare down “gazillion-dollar deficits,” City Collector Michael Sawicki noted. But in recent years Rider made sure requests were realistic and, since she had been in the city for decades, balanced capital-improvement requests among the departments with an eye to their greatest long-term needs.

“I see a lot of advantages to it, especially in the finance area, just the day-to-day operations,” Sawicki said. “We’re a $6.5 million budget that kind of runs with different fiefdoms, and I’m not saying anybody’s doing anything wrong — it’s just not efficient.”

“It’s a business, and it’s not run like a business,” Ward 1 Alderman Richard Gau said.

When Personnel Committee members Gau and Ward 1 Alderman Dee Baebler set up the interim arrangement after Rider left, they found that the city has been using some of its higher-level employees to write meeting minutes, which could be delegated to a clerk or outsourced.

That’s the kind of inefficiency that Gau, who is president and CEO of John Henry Foster, argued that a city administrator would have likely changed long ago, just as business owners do.

Gau told acting board President Tom Musich, who is a physician, “If someone’s administering the city, they’re figuring out how to run the business more efficiently, as you run your practice. You’re doing that all the time — you’re not waiting for the committee to meet to tell you that it’s a good idea.”

The cost between hiring a city administrator instead of hiring a city clerk at Rider’s salary could be roughly $15,000, but Furrer estimated a city clerk could be hired for $20,000 less than the roughly $85,000 Rider made.

Day-to-day city decisions are currently made by the mayor, by part-time aldermen and residents who meet in city committees, but mostly by the four department heads, including the city clerk, City Engineer and Public Works Director Bryson Baker, Police Chief William LaGrand and Parks and Recreation Director Gerald Brown.

The department heads hire and fire their own employees and develop their own budgets, Furrer noted.

“So Bryson did his budget, Lt. (Greg) Zveitel did his budget, Gerald did his budget, so every department did their own budget,” Furrer said. “We have knowledgeable department heads who do their own budgets.”

Baebler contacted the mayors of Crestwood, Kirkwood and Webster Groves, who all recommended Sunset Hills hire a city administrator.

“How do you run a city without one?” Crestwood Mayor Gregg Roby said. “The mayor and council are politicians and should keep their minds on their constituents. The mayor should be the leader and cheerleader for the city.”

Crestwood City Administrator Mark Sime is an “integral part of the city,” Roby said, who is “able to step into any role, including accounting, street department, et cetera. His education and training are to run the business of the city. City staff know they are protected and only have to worry about doing their job. Politics do not belong in day-to-day operations.”

But Musich said he talked to an unnamed official in Crestwood who sees life with a city administrator differently.

“The person that I was talking to said it’s a political nightmare and it’s just another level of politics,” Musich said.