Communication in city still key

The recent ruling that firefighters in the city of Steubenville had been improperly terminated is just the latest symptom of an issue in city government that needs to be dealt with.

The issue is one of communication and attitude.

In recent months, the city has successfully passed a tax levy renewal only for residents to be told within days that the budget for 2013 would be short, a fire station would need to be closed and parks and recreation curtailed.

Then, as time went on, the fire station was saved, but the layoffs in the fire department were still deemed necessary for the budget. And then the layoffs were not done according to Ohio law, where a 14-day notice of layoff was required.

Couple all of that with some odd comments by City Manager Cathy Davison after a recent weekend with a murder and another shooting, and city residents are left with the impression of a government that is at the least out of step.

More like out of synch, we think.

It’s obvious that there are issues in the way the city is being governed that relate to personalities and conflicts.

We’ve seen it before in the city manager-council relationship. Council members begin wanting to play a greater role and the manager wants to be given the chance to be the hired professional leading the way. In past situations, the relationship ended one way or another.

In the current situation, that’s not possible given Davison’s contract and the city’s tight budget. And that’s good, because we think Davison has the ability to lead when given the chance.

Davison has her hands full, no doubt, with a city that finally is reckoning with a loss of jobs and a loss of population that started decades before she had probably ever even heard of Steubenville. The city council members, no doubt, have their hands full with a citizenry that wants to know why, when their taxes don’t go down, they face less and less service from their city.

The council members were elected by residents to handle concerns in their neighborhoods and the city at large, ranging from the simple single-constituent questions to the complex issues of budget and management.

For those complex issues, they have, under the city’s form of government, a hired professional.

The relationship works best when the issues are brought up to the manager, the manager comes up with solutions and then offers the council a couple of choices of direction, thus allowing legislators and their hired executive to fulfill their roles.

When one side or the other fails to listen, or fails to communicate clearly, the results become easy to see, with an angry council and a manager literally throwing up his or her hands.

Good government means neither side should back the other into a corner.

The situation has to improve, and, since it looks as if council and Davison are kind of stuck with one another for the duration of her contract, it must improve. Communications and rational discussion that feeds information in both directions would be the right step.

And so, council needs to give Davison space to lead, and Davison needs to give council clear and direct choices to make – give council some options before telling them they have but one direction to go.

It would prevent the confusing, and destructive, lack of focus that has pervaded the city government in recent months. And it could go a long way to making city residents have a city government they can believe is doing something other than lurching from battleground to battleground on every issue. That doesn’t work at the national level and it cannot be allowed at the local level.