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City manager needs authority over staff

A city manager form of government relies on a strong administrator to implement city council policy. Among other duties, the manager needs to be the final authority on hirings and firings of the city staff to avoid potential patronage attempts by the city's elected leaders.

Politics, not patronage, is the root of a problem in New Port Richey, where an archaic rule allowed a citizens panel to usurp City Manager Gerald Seeber's authority.

The city's civil service board, hearing an appeal for the first time in 14 years, recently reversed the firing of a public works employee who had been arrested and accused of possessing a controlled substance. The worker later acknowledged during his appeal hearing that he smoked marijuana on his lunch break.

The issue is not the severity of the punishment, but rather the policy implementing it. The city's drug-free workplace program prohibits possession or use of illegal substances on the job. Violators are subject to immediate dismissal.

Turns out, it doesn't matter. Under the current city code, the civil service board's ruling is final. That system needs to change. An appointed board with no accountability should not be allowed to supersede the city manager, who answers to the City Council.

The employee's appeal is being played out with the city's campaign season as the backdrop. The civil service board is chaired by Robert Moore, a candidate for City Council in the April 10 election. Moore is critical of Seeber's management and said he will consider the idea of disbanding the city manager form of government if he is elected. It is an ill-conceived idea and one that shouldn't be advanced through the civil service board.

A citizens group that endorsed Moore suggests the civil service board is vital to protect city employees. Hardly. City managers in Dade City and Zephyrhills, for instance, are the final authority on employee discipline in those cities. New Port Richey needs a similar policy, and the City Council is scheduled to consider one tonight.

Under a new proposal, the council would disband the civil service board and allow the city manager to assume responsibility for employee discipline. Options include allowing department heads to hand out punishment with appeals to the city manager and a third-party arbitrator; or allowing a citizens committee to hear the appeal and make a recommendation to the city manager who would retain final authority. Either is preferable to the current format.

Critics are wrong to portray the plan as a power play by the city administration. More accurately, it is an attempt to rewrite an inappropriate policy that allows board members to act with neither consequences to themselves nor regard for long-term ramifications to the city.