City Manager Barry Feldman after being suspended by City Council
Portsmouth’s unhappy experience in the early 1980s with the city manager-council form of government helps explain why the voters decided to return to the mayor-council form of government in 1988. Now some misguided folks as well as the usual crooks want to switch back to the city manager-council form of government. When will they ever learn? It’s as if Barry Feldman never existed. Feldman was the city manager of Portsmouth during the early 1980s, a period of political upheaval that he was primarily responsible for. I don’t see Feldman’s name on Portsmouth’s Wall of Fame, which occupies the river side of the floodwall. If it was a Hall of Shame, Feldman’s name should be right up there with all the other crooks. (For more on Feldman, click here.)
Under the council-manager form of government the city manager is supposed to follow the direction of the city council, but in 1980 Feldman followed the orders not of the city council but of the plutocrats who control Portsmouth. A plutocracy is government in which the wealthy hold political power, and Portsmouth has been a plutocracy since at least as far back as 1980. In 1980, a majority of three council members wanted to fire Feldman, which they had the right to do under the city charter, but the plutocrats helped organize a successful campaign to recall the three councilmen. Their recall was an example of plutocracy, not democracy, at work.
The basic problem with the council-manager form of government is that instead of checks and balances, it concentrates the legislative and executive powers in one branch of municipal government—the city council. Under the city manager-council form of government, the city council exercises both executive and legislative functions and the city manager is merely the administrative servant of the council. Under the city manager-council form of government, the city manager is the servant of the city council, a housekeeper: at worst, which is what Feldman was, the city manager is the eunuch in the harem of prostitutes financed by the plutocracy.
Bottom of the Barrel
Under the present city charter, anyone can run for city council provided he or she is a registered voter, and therefore at least eighteen years of age; anyone can run for city council who has lived in the city for at least five years (that’s the Portsmouth Boy provision) and have been a resident for at least six months in the ward they are seeking to represent. They don’t need to be high school graduates; they don’t need to have finished grade school. They don’t need to pass a mental competency or drug test. They can be a fool, a crook, and a crony, and too often are. They are the failures and the losers, they are the bottom of the barrel of bad apples. And these are the ones who are going to tell the city manager what to do?
If the the majority of city council members were honest, intelligent, and competent, the manager-council form of government would make sense. But when was the last time the majority of the Portsmouth City Council were honest, intelligent, and competent? In 1980, that’s when, but that majority was recalled from office precisely because they were, intelligent and competent and above all honest. While there have been notable exceptions, of course, like Bob Mollette, the majority of the Portsmouth city council is usually dishonest, dumb, and incompetent, and they serve the interests not of the public but of the plutocrats—the wealthy lawyers, developers, and beneficiaries of the Southern Ohio Growth Partnership. A city manager would be at the mercy of the failures and political hacks—the Bauers, the Kalbs, the Malones—who gravitate to city council with the hope of becoming mayor by default—by recalls, by resignations by those facing recall, and by indictments.
In summary, the council-manager form of city government would make Portsmouth a worse, not a better place, and God and now the rest of the country knows our notorious, corrupt, pill-popping river city is bad enough as it is.
Cartoon from early 1980s showing city manager Feldman mauling Portsmouth taxpayers