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North Carolina was a pioneer in the county-manager form of government. In 1929 Robeson became the first county in the United States to adopt it, and in 1930 Durham became the second county in the country to do so. 2010 marks the 80th anniversary of Durham's adoption of this system of government and the eightieth anniversary of the hiring of Dallas W. Newsom as the first Durham County manager.
The County-Manager System of Government in Historical Context
Government employing a professional manager accountable to elected officials came into being in the U.S. about 100 years ago.It was created as part of a reform effort to eliminate corruption in local government.Nineteenth-century Jacksonian democracy, averse to concentrated power in government, had created a system—the “long ballot”—by which officials elected by popular vote filled not only the most critical administrative positions, but also many others.Few of these officials had the skills or incentives to cooperate with other officials to run an efficient, effective government.Party machines filled the leadership void, with political bosses controlling and manipulating voting.In return for delivering the vote, political bosses told elected officials how to run local operations, usually in a way that enriched the bosses and their cronies.Personal favors, political deals, and private profit were the principles by which public affairs were organized and conducted. Party machine politics were inefficient,a waste of local government funds, and a blatant affront to the public good as government’s guiding principle.Progressive reformers promoted widespread citizen access to accountable elected officials through various means including the short ballot, the strong executive, and nonpartisan, at-large elections.
Reformers also sought to introduce business and scientific management principles into local government. The original council-manager plans for cities (which was also applied to counties) tried to bring to local government a balance of democratic political accountability and honest, competent administration. In a move away from the reformers’s previous support of a strong, elected executive, the plan called for a small, accountable elected body with a presiding officer that would employ a politicall neutral expert manager to serve at its pleasure. The manager was to give the elected body objective, rational advice, then execute whatever decisions that body made, using sound business practices to efficiently administerday-to-day government affairs. In nearly 100 years, the main elements of the plan have changed very little. The International City/County Management Association recognizes a jurisdiction as a council-manager or county-manager jurisdiction if the manager
- is appointment by majority vote of the governing body for a definite or indefinite term
- serves at the pleasure of the entire governing body (not the chair or mayor alone, and is subject to termination by majority vote at any time
- has direct responsibility for the operation of government services and functions
- has direct responsibility for policy formulation on overall problems, especially developing and analyzing alternatives, and for implementation of policy approved by the governing body
- has direct responsibility for budget preparation, presentation, and implementation
- has appointment, removal, and administrative authority over principal department heads, who are administratively responsible to the manager.
County and Municipal Government in North Carolina.Chapel Hill:School of Government, University of North Carolina, 2007, Article 5, “Leading and Governing in Council-Manager Counties and Cities,” pp. 2-3.