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1 in 4 Kansas counties have an administrator

Staff writer

Nearly a quarter of Kansas counties, most of them larger than Marion County, have some form of administrator, manager, or coordinator similar to what politicians here have been calling for.

Of counties with administrators, only Russell County has less population, but seven have smaller budgets, according to the Kansas Association of Counties.

However, officials from organizations representing county governments warn that configuring an administrator system to match what local residents expect can be complicated.

Nathan Eberline, associate legal counsel for KAC, said his group generally advocated for “for some form of professional management.”

“But that comes with an important caveat,” he said, “and that is that we emphasize more than anything the need for local control.”

Local control means figuring out exactly how lines of authority would work and what areas a county administrator would actually supervise.

“We see a wide variety in what that might mean,” Eberline said. “Some have more expertise in finances; some have more experience in human services. Each county can figure out what they need.”

County administrators aren’t like city administrators or managers because counties have many elected officials who oversee their own departments and are not required to follow a county administrator’s advice.

“At the very core there needs to be cooperation among everyone,” Eberline said. “That needs to include the cities. When you look at the scope of what counties provide, it’s significant.”

Gary Meagher, Reno County administrator, said he would encourage Marion County to consider creating a position like his. In his opinion, the county could operate more efficiently, creating savings that would offset the administrator’s salary.

“When counties are looking at it, they think, ‘Oh, gosh, we’re going to have to pay another person,’ but they’ll find the commissioners will appreciate having the efficiency,” Meagher said. “I think when you look at a city or county administrator, one of the things you look for is a person who can add value to your operation.”

Meagher compared running a county to running a business.

“A $28 million business would not be run by a board of directors,” he said.

He contends that having a county administrator wouldn’t take away from what county commissioners do.

“What it does is provide some continuity when new commissioners come on,” he said.

It also avoids situations where different commissioners go to department heads wanting different things done.

“An administrator can do some planning and eliminate arbitrary decisions,” Meagher said. “You can be an intermediary to say, ‘Here is what we’re doing. We have to look at the whole picture.’”

Administrators typically research topics and explain to commissioners what appears to be the best way to accomplish the commissioners’ goals, Meagher said.

“It probably would help them a lot to have someone to help them do this stuff,” Meagher said. “This person is kind of the connection between the staff and the commission in getting things done.”

On March 27, Marion City Council adopted a resolution calling for creation of a county administrator position.

Councilman John Wheeler said it seems to him that the city moved through meetings in a more timely fashion because its administrator deals with day-to-day business.

County Commissioner Dianne Novak has said since her election campaign last fall that she supports the idea of a county administrator.

“We are in dire need of an administrator,” Novak said.

Commissioner Ken Becker also has called for discussion of a county administrator.

Michele Frisby, director of public information for the International City/County Management Association, also advocates for hiring administrators like those who belong to her group.

Frisby already has provided information about the desirability of a county administrator in response to an inquiry from a Marion County resident.

Her association also funds groups formed to advocate for the appointment of administrators.

“That’s a fund through which an official group can approach ICMA with a budget to promote this and make a request for financial support for some sort,” Frisby said.

Printing of flyers promoting the plan in advance of a required referendum on the issue might be one of the items her group would pay for.

The group also sends retired public administrators to serve as advisers or even as interim administrators.

“I am definitely in favor of having a county administrator because I don’t think it’s fair to the elected officials to have to be full-time administrators when they are part-time elected officials,” Frisby said.

Last modified June 1, 2017

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