Housecleaning at City Hall: Marking a break with the past

Housecleaning at City Hall: Marking a break with the past

April 12th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Chattanooga City Hall

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

Under the city charter, Mayor-elect Andy Berke has to fill six critical positions. He also has authority to choose heads of six other departments, which may themselves be changed or eliminated. Since he named his transition team a month ago, he has obviously been studying his personnel options closely. The house cleaning he unloosed Wednesday suggests he's taking his prerogatives more seriously than any other city or county mayor in recent history.

In all, 17 of the top 21 city officials and departments heads who served under outgoing Mayor Ron Littlefield are leaving, and more may follow. Seven of these are retiring. Others resigned voluntarily, or presumably because it was the best option Berke offered. And some were obviously fired. Berke says he still talking with Police Chief Bobby Dodd about "his future," and he's examining, as well he should, Littlefield's designation Wednesday of his deputy mayor, Anita Ebersole, as the newly created 311 director at a salary of $98,538.

Berke's broom work seems doubly functional. It meets voters' broad perception of the need for a thorough housecleaning at City Hall. Which means there won't be much public blowback to Berke for sacking the staff and key aides on whom Littlefield presumably relied for support or implementation of his most unpopular policies and decisions.

Berke's quick, simultaneous execution of the personnel actions will also allow him to promptly install his own loyalists and get to work on his own priorities, including the broad reorganization of city departments that he apparently intends to make. With seven new members on the nine-person City Council responding to a similar impetus, he's also unlikely to get much flack from the council over his personnel actions.

Regardless, Berke is bound to loose some valuable institutional knowledge and to have wrongly judged some of those who were let go. Certainly some of them stood honorably above, or argued against, political and partisan actions. Berke recognized that by retaining finance director Daisy Madison, treasurer Gayle Keown, and deputy personnel director Richard Beeland, who had served as Littlefield's information director. But he failed that measure with a few others.

In any case, Berke has the right to name the people who will be most responsible for implementing his agenda and vision for the city. And apparently, his agenda will come with a comprehensive overhaul of the labels and functions for the city's various departments. That will require not just ingenuity and innovation by his team of advisers, but also a healthy respect for the essential duties and services now provided by the departments that will be restructured.

What bothers some seasoned veterans of City Hall is that Berke is bringing in so many new people -- as advisers or appointees -- who have no deep knowledge of the functions and responsibilities the city must meet, or of the planning behind some current city initiatives. It would be easy to overstate that concern, but until Berke actually begins to reveal his reorganization of city government with specificity, that concern hovers.

The good thing is that Berke appears to be willing to tackle big issues, to set high goals, and to express his own accountability for what his administration delivers. He and new City Council members will assume their new offices Monday in a ceremony at 10 a.m. in the Tivoli Theater. And soon after that Berke, his new staff, and members of the Council, will be judged on how they deliver what they promised.