City should avoid backsliding into bad habits
As the city of Medford enters a new era of leadership, elected officials must take care they do not fall into the same traps as in the past. Council members and the mayor must remain vigilant and engaged in the daily running of the city and prevent over-consolidation of authority.
In 2003, members of the Medford City Council created the coordinator position with the intent that the individual would work with the experienced department heads in a more decentralized atmosphere. Prior to this point, the city had gone through a string of administrators who faced criticism because of how they exercised authority beyond what was specifi cally granted by the council.
City coordinator John Fales, whose retirement becomes official next week, has well-deserved credit for moving the city forward in many areas when it comes to infrastructure and being prepared for economic growth. Where his legacy is less positive is in his interpersonal dealings with the staff, department heads and community members. Over the 17 years he held the position, Fales amassed considerable personal power far in excess of what was imagined when the position was first created. In recent years the position has acted as a city manager in all but name as virtually every decision came through the coordinator’s office and only a select few trickled to the city council for action. This accumulation of power did not happen overnight and in many ways was done with the full blessing or at least no opposition from the mayor or city council members serving at the time.
The downside of this accumulation of power and largely non-existent oversight was that department heads were never encouraged to advance to their full potential. Instead, as staff changed, the number of hats worn by Fales increased. This is proving costly for city taxpayers as the council voted to spend upwards of $80,000 in 2021 to keep current city clerk Virginia Brost on board to help with the transition.
The city of Medford was overdue for a reset to rebalance the authority of the coordinator with that of elected officials.
Joe Harris will officially take on the title of city coordinator next week. He has already been doing many of the day-to-day duties of that position since the announcement of former coordinator John Fales’ retirement last month. Ashley Lemke will take over as city clerk when Brost retires at the end of the year and has already begun the transition to that position.
Just as the state and nation are governed by their constitutions, the city is governed by its charter ordinance which establishes the supreme authority of the elected council when it comes to making decisions. Elected officials should rely on the advice and experience of city employees. At the same time, elected officials must jealously guard the power the people lend them and not let it be sipped away to serve the will of unelected bureaucrats.