Manhattan is making temporary changes to the powers of the city manager and how it conducts business in an effort to streamline its operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
City Commissioners Tuesday via Zoom resolved 4 to 1 to grant City Manager Ron Fehr the power to cancel city commission and advisory board meetings only when deemed necessary for the health, safety and welfare of the public. Additionally, Fehr’s spending authority — typically limited to expenditures and change orders of up to $20,000 without approval on the consent agenda — was increased to $75,000, which staff says is in line with cities of comparable size. Department heads’ expense authority increased from $10,000 to $25,000.
The resolution has a sunset of June 30, though commissioners could rescind or extend it at any time.
“It’s necessary for us […] to be forced to talk about this again,” says Commissioner Aaron Estabrook, who had originally eyed an August 1 sunset. “It gives us plenty of time, it gets us through at least the first part of the weather season and we can look back at it again.”
Deputy City Manager Jason Hilgers says telecommuting and remote work has increased the amount of time it takes to work through daily business. Adding in the large load of work necessary to the local response to the coronavirus outbreak further hinders the city manager’s office to respond quickly to immediate needs.
“We are compromised by way of staffing,” says Hilgers. “And that’s what really’s led us to this resolution, to try to get us to a point where we can act quickly with the resources we have.”
Hilgers says temporarily increasing Fehr’s expense authority to $75,000 would allow his staff to spend less time preparing memos on expenditures that rarely get discussed further during meetings and focus their efforts elsewhere.
Additionally, the resolution allows Fehr to forgo the usual process for purchasing goods or contracting for services only for emergency purchases, if the usual process would be a detriment to the city or public or if the standard process is not feasible at the time. Typically, Fehr would need to solicit three quotes before moving forward with any deal — but if circumstances match the above listed provisions he would have the authority to solicit products or services directly or via a different process.
“They’re typically designed to allow competition — we’re not desiring to eliminate competition, but we recognize that right now it may not be feasible to get three quotes from certain types of providers,” says City Attorney Katie Jackson. “They may not be open, there may not be three providers who can respond timely just because of the conditions we’re under.”
The usual process of soliciting three quotes will remain in place for public infrastructure projects. Though not on the agenda proper, expenditures will still be recorded and provided in usual reports released to the commission and public.
Additionally, powers vested in the city manager will also be vested in the deputy city manager so as to allow Hilgers to perform some daily activities that Fehr has been drawn away from as he is involved in emergency operations.
“What happens if a wind storm comes in here or like happened to Jonesboro, Arkansas — a tornado goes through?” Mayor Pro Tempore Wynn Butler said, referring to a Saturday EF-3 that destroyed and damaged dozens of homes. “City manager’s got to have this authority because the way we’re operating right now we’ll never be able to react.”
Fehr maintains the authority to make expenses related to emergencies, as well. Mayor Usha Reddi says she wouldn’t want the $75,000 expense authority to be permanent, referring to RCPD’s gym contract that went through without a bid process.
Under usual circumstances, the only fund that does not require purchases follow the procurement process is the employee benefit fund. Commissioner Linda Morse, the sole opposing vote, questioned that, but Commissioner Mark Hatesohl says Fehr’s experience and track record gives him no concerns about misuse of funds.
“The reason that Ron Fehr has been city manager here for almost 20 years is he knows better than to go buy stuff without some significant backing by the city commission,” says Hatesohl. “We kept him on a short leash with the twenty thousand, and that has kept him out of a lot of potential trouble, but the things you’re worried about is what gets city managers fired on a yearly and daily basis.”
“Takes strong will to do those things,” Morse replied.
Reddi says it is not an issue of trust, but of not opening the door for even the potential of misuse.
“Ron is great, but something can happen to Ron and it takes a lot to build that relationship between whoever else is going to take over,” Reddi says. “And I do know a lot of other city managers who do abuse their powers, so I guess the negative part of me taps into more of that.”
“But because we can revisit this it might be alright to give that authority, see how it’s being used, see what people do with this under the circumstance — especially if we’re talking about fewer staff, fewer meetings, but we still have to do routine business.”
The resolution also allows the commission to adopt ordinances in one reading instead of two — permissible by state law — authorize remote meetings of their body and city advisory boards, and suspend live readings of public comments — though comments can be submitted via mail or email to be distributed to the public and the commission and commissioners still have the discretion to do so themselves during their comments.
Administration says the provisions still adhere to the Kansas Open Meeting Act, which only requires the public be able to observe public meetings rather than participate. Morse, though, urged the city to find some platform that would accommodate live public comment. “
“That’s important to me and I believe it’s important to the people in our community,” says Morse. “So if this remote business goes on for a lengthy period of time, […] then I think we need to explore and see if there are some other ways to do it to allow the public that input.”
Following the 4 to 1 vote, there was some confusion regarding the public comment provision, which eliminated live public comments during the meeting. Fehr asked if the expectation would be to have a staffer read all submitted emails as public comment for a meeting regardless of the volume.
“We are also in a time where a lot of people have a lot to say and if we get , I do think it’s on us to read it — that’s how this process works,” Reddi says. “We are at a time when the people want a lot of information and a lot of communication and they have a lot of concerns that that’s the platform they would have originally used, to come and speak in front of us.”
Jackson clarified that the implication of the vote was public comments would not be read in their entirety, but posted online and distributed to commissioners ahead of the meeting for their review. She further says if staffers were to read public comments live, they may be put in a tough position if the content of the comments are vulgar or profane and that moderation of the comments by city officials would be inappropriate. Jackson also says online public comments could lead to people lying about their identities.
“It’s not that we don’t want the comments, we do,” says Jackson. “But broadcasting them as part of the meeting is outside the scope of the resolution and creates some practical, logistical and other issues.”
“Also, if you get two or three hundred, you can’t pick and choose which ones — someone’s going to have to read them all, which undermines the purpose of the resolution which is to streamline the meetings [during the emergency period].”
Reddi did not believe they would receive that volume of contact, and that publishing comments online will remove them from the public from the process.
“I feel like we just took the democratic process out.”
Butler didn’t see any problem with the resolution, and proposed giving a summary of the content and volume of comments they received during the meeting while posting all of them in their entirety online.
“Think about what can happen with social media — if we were to get 200 emails that were actually 5 minutes long, you’d spend 15 hours reading them,” Butler says. “Our meeting would expire before that.”
Morse says she wants to return to open public comment once meetings convene in person once again, adding in the meantime she’d prefer public comments were sent directly to commissioners rather than filter through city staff.
“I don’t fear the public, I welcome public input.”
Estabrook says the item is not permanent, but acknowledged the pandemic could continue further than the expiration date. In the case the peak has not been reached, they need to develop new protocols going forward.
“If we have to go beyond June 30, we should be exploring how we do this in a more transparent way that doesn’t [eliminate]live public comments like we are going to.”
Hatesohl says he thinks if an item is important to the public, they should reach out and ask them to share it during their comment period.
“Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, but they have to be limited,” says Hatesohl. “Because if this thing goes on much into the summer we’re going to have bigger problems than not taking public comment.”
“People are not going to keep putting up with being cooped up at home, not being able to work, not being able to do their lives — and that’s not going to last more than early part of summer because I’ll be one of the people out there leading it.”
Reddi also urged those with concerns or comments to reach out and not let the changing conditions dissuade them from expressing their views.
“If I get comments, I will probably read them out when it’s commissioner comment time,” says Reddi.