On July 14, the Lewiston City Council fired Jim Bennett, arguably the most visionary, energetic and effective city manager since the job was created in 1980. No rationale was given, though some councilors offered the lame excuse it was time “to go in a different direction.” (They did not say if this direction was over a cliff).

How could councilors take such a controversial step without debate, public hearing or stated justification? The answer lies in the nature of the council-manager form of government.

At first glance, this system appears to strike a good balance between administrative efficiency and electoral accountability, but the fly in the ointment in Lewiston, like many towns and cities, is the often irrational nature of politics.

Lewiston’s councilors and mayor (essentially the council chairperson) serve part-time and are paid nominal salaries ($2,700/year per councilor and $4,200/year for the mayor). The job can be arduous and time-consuming. Given the lack of strong economic incentives to serve, it is amazing anyone seeks local office.

Those who do tend to fall into two categories: Either they are motivated by civic responsibility, or they have a personal agenda, cherish the spotlight and act like spoiled children when they don’t get their way.

When too many prima donnas hold council seats, it’s not unusual for them to quarrel with each other and with the manager, particularly if the manager won’t yield to their whims.

From 2002 through 2006, Lewiston mayors Laurier T. Raymond Jr. and Lionel Guay Jr. worked harmoniously with the manager and council to push forward an ambitious public agenda. By acting together, the mayor, council and manager were catalysts for a variety of major initiatives, including privatizing the Bates Mill, remaking lower Lisbon Street and sharing services with Auburn.

In 2008, the entire council membership changed and sparks flew. Bennett’s days were clearly numbered after he barred a councilor from attending staff meetings, preventing him, in effect, from usurping the manager’s statutory role of supervising and controlling municipal personnel.

The manager’s job is to carry out laws and local ordinances; hire, supervise and control department heads and employees; act as purchasing agent; make recommendations to the council for efficient government operations and keep the council informed of the city’s finances. Councilors, elected bi-annually, hire and fire the manager, pass ordinances and approve the annual budget.

In 1939, the Maine legislature enacted a statute allowing municipalities to hire a manager “solely on the basis of executive and administrative qualifications.” This was 30 years after the seeds for this reform had been sown.

In the 19th century, immigration and industrialization caused America’s population to rise from 5 to 76 million, and to shift from rural to urban areas. The latter’s share increased from 6 to 40 percent of the populace by 1900. Lewiston’s inhabitants, fewer than 1,000 in 1800, numbered almost 24,000 a century later.

City governments expanded rapidly to meet the needs of the new urban dwellers, providing services such as water distribution, sewerage, garbage collection, street lamps, trolleys, public health, police and fire departments. This exponential growth, however, led to inefficiency and pervasive corruption.

Contracts for municipal services were awarded for the highest bribe, not the lowest bid. The same was true for regulatory approvals and permits. Police departments ran gambling and prostitution operations. Officials set up companies to build roads, street railways, gasworks and other public facilities, doing business on advantageous terms with the very governments they were supposed to serve.

These sleazy practices were graphically described in “The Shame of the Cities,” a series of magazine articles, later published as a book in 1904, by Lincoln Steffens, one of the era’s great journalist “muckrakers.”

By the 1890s and early 1900s, public outrage was boiling against corrupt political machines (as well as business cartels, railroads and banks). A loose coalition of farmers, laborers, progressive politicians and social activists pressed for reform.

One reform, first tried in Staunton, Va., in 1908 introduced a city manager form of government. The goal was to take party politics out of municipal administration and place it in the hands of professional experts.

Lewiston initially went in a different direction. Plagued by corruption during the Great Depression, its police and school departments were virtually taken over by the state until a new city charter in February 1939 vested administrative control over city affairs in citizen commissions for finance, health and welfare, police, fire, public works and education. The commission system was honest, but, like most forms of collective leadership, cautious about change.

Finally in 1980, Lewiston revised its charter to create a manager-council form of government.

The manager system may have eliminated the worst abuses of municipal inefficiency and corruption, but it doesn’t offer a fix for mud-wrestling politics. As comedian Ron White reminds us, “Y’ can’t fix stupid.”

Elliott L. Epstein, a local attorney, is founder and board president of
Museum L-A and an adjunct history instructor at Central Maine Community
College. He can be reached at [email protected]

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