‘Business Report’ Publisher: Is Ascension showing EBR the way?

Is the Capital City about to be schooled by our fast-growing neighbor to the south? Are they going to find a solution to effectively running a parish government first? A Better Ascension, a nonprofit group of Ascension Parish business leaders, is advocating a major change to the home rule charter that would replace the elected parish president position with a parish council-appointed government manager. The position would require a master’s in business or public administration and at least five years’ experience as a government executive.

Does this sound like a more effective solution than hiring multiple Ph.D.s to staff the mayor-president’s office (who expect to be addressed as “doctor”), with most having little or no business or executive experience? Well, Baton Rouge has made mistakes before, and the worst was in 1988. Imagine what our Capital City would be like today.

Tom Ed McHugh had just been elected. Ted Gaebler, a professional city manager, came to visit the mayor. He had been featured on the cover of Inc. magazine for leading “The Most Entrepreneurial City in America” (Visalia, California). Many were impressed with his story and success—and we invited him here.

McHugh had been a member of the Metro Council representing Zachary and was over transportation for the EBR school system. He needed help “running a major city.” As I recall, Gaebler offered to move to Baton Rouge as CAO for $80,000 a year. The mayor balked because his own salary was just $74,000 at the time. So what? He failed to see the vision and experience that Gaebler had—and which he lacked. Instead, McHugh hired him to consult for six months.

The status quo remained. The evidence that McHugh screwed up came when Gaebler went on to co-author the best-selling book, Reinventing Government, in 1992.

Gaebler assessed all that needed to be changed at City Hall after meeting with all the department heads and Metro Council, as well as talking with staff and others. But when it came time to implement, McHugh didn’t renew the contract for another six months, or hired him. (I was told he was afraid the media would criticize him for spending the money.) McHugh thought he could execute the changes on his own. He was wrong. The reorganization plan, according to one of McHugh’s former assistant chief administration officers, was never implemented.

“Nothing changed,” this staffer said. “The biggest mistake we made was not hiring Ted Gaebler.”

Instead, McHugh ended up hiring his former boss, Graydon Walker, assistant superintendent of the EBR school system. (Now that was really an innovative, efficient and effective organization to recruit from.)

The status quo remained. The evidence that McHugh screwed up came when Gaebler went on to co-author the best-selling book, Reinventing Government, in 1992. At that point, he was getting paid $10,000 for an hour speech.

As you read a couple excerpts from Gaebler’s bio here, remember he could have been helping lead our parish in 1988:

  • “Ted Gaebler is an internationally recognized authority on new approaches to government issues and is a leader in setting the stage for change … he has been changing governments for more than 40 years. Making governments better—not ‘just managing’—has consistently motivated Mr. Gaebler. Through his roles as County Executive Officer, City Manager, teacher, and mentor, he has been acknowledged as a revolutionary ‘reinventor’ and ‘public entrepreneur,’ changing governments peacefully from the inside out.”
  • “Mr. Gaebler is the co-author of the book Reinventing Government, which became an international best seller about transforming governments from outdated, bureaucratic organizations, to flexible, customer-focused organizations. His book has been used throughout the world in helping local, state, and national governments rethink their means of providing governmental services and economic growth.”
  • “He led the new City of Rancho Cordova to become an All-America City in 2010, and to become No.12 in Fortune magazine’s 2011 and 2012 Great Place to Work list (the first city government to ever make the list).”
  • “Mr. Gaebler graduated from Miami University in Ohio before earning his Master’s Degree in Government Administration from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Graduate School of Business.”

Of course there is evidence all around us of this poor decision that was made due to lack of vision, resistance to change and fear of taking risks. Our big city suffered from small town thinking for 12 years under McHugh, who blew a golden opportunity to “think different” and hire Gaebler at the very beginning of that period to help him govern and lead. That is a shame, and many of us who supported McHugh still regret his decision and lack of leadership and courage.

The mayor-president is ultimately responsible now for how the city-parish runs. With a total budget of about $900 million and 4,500 employees, which candidates who ran had led such an operation? None.

For the record, McHugh wasn’t the only one to miss an opportunity. Gaebler co-authored Reinventing Government with David Osborne, who also did consulting on reorganizing government to be innovative, customer-focused and more efficient. Mayor Bobby Simpson got a proposal from Osborne to work with him, which I delivered, when he took office in 2001. He never had a meeting with Osborne. And Mayor Kip Holden had Osborne come to visit him during his first transition. Nothing ever happened. Two more missed opportunities.

The mayor-president is ultimately responsible now for how the city-parish runs. With a total budget of about $900 million and 4,500 employees, which candidates who ran had led such an operation? None. What about in Ascension? This is serious business. A city manager form of government is not a silver bullet, but it does acknowledge there is a need for professional executive management on a daily basis—not politics with pals. City management is a profession and pays well—and more than a mayor or parish president makes. (Imagine what a corporation with 4,500 employees would pay its CEO or COO.) Taxpayers need strong management and decision-making based on experience, which a good city manager can provide.

There will be those who will point out that Mayor Sharon Weston Broome did attempt to hire a professional city manager. Let’s be clear, the title may have been “city manager,” but it’s clear she was after a glorified chief administrative officer. Moreover, she erred in not getting a professional HR person or firm to assist her and vet candidates. She also searched with too low a salary to attract the best and was not creative in putting together the package. She ended up with a fake and that has set her back. That misstep should not sour anyone’s view on the hire of a legitimate city manager to run the day-to-day operations of city-parish government.

So, as Ascension Parish ponders its future and form of government, its people should consider our missed opportunities and past mistakes. Running a city is not an easy task and will get tougher. EBR needs to be having this debate on a city manager form of government, too. Can you imagine what our parish and city would be like today had McHugh taken a bold step in 1988 and hired such an innovative talent to professionally run City Hall and prepare us for this century? Instead, the status quo won—and we all lost.

North Baton Rouge in charge

Most folks divide our parish at Florida Boulevard into “north and south.” And those to the north, from Zachary Mayor David Amrhein to Rouge Collection publisher Gary Chambers, bemoan its lack of attention and investment. But as I pointed out the other day to Chambers, who always likes to look at residency, he should check out five of the last six mayor-presidents: Sharon Weston Broome, north Baton Rouge; Kip Holden, north Baton Rouge; Bobby Simpson, Baker; Tom Ed McHugh, Zachary; and Woody Dumas, Baker. That is a total of 45 years in the mayor’s office for a resident of “north Baton Rouge” out of the past 53 years. (By my calculation that is 85% of the time.) So how is it that all the folks in south Baton Rouge are to blame for the state of NBR?

Read previous columns by Rolfe McCollister

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