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County administrators an outgrowth from cities

Public policy expert calls it ‘natural evolution’

News editor

Six months from now, county government could be a different beast if voters give commissioners a green light Tuesday to get a county administrator.

Marion County would join a minority of counties as only the 22nd one to hire someone to manage day-to-day operations.

While the position would be new to the county, creating it would be part of a century-old trend that began with the state’s cities, public policy expert Ed Flentje said.

“This development in Kansas is 100 years old,” he said. “We now have 60 Kansas cities, mosty larger cities, that have a council-manager plan, and there’s another 80 to 90 with the mayor–council-administrator plan. It’s really a natural evolution of that whole movement.”

Flentje noted Marion and Hillsboro are cities using the mayor-council-administrator structure.

Professor emeritus at Wichita State University’s Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs, Flentje recently wrote an article about what he termed “this quiet revolution” in governance, and compiled a research report on county administrators for Kansas Association of Counties.

Flentje said a list of county administrator responsibilities found in state law could be condensed into four categories.

“What the post of county administrator does is help commissions become accountable for finance, for oversight, for management issues, and for dealing with pub policy issues,” he said.

A county administrator with education and experience in policy, finance, and management would bring expertise to county leadership that commissioners often lack.

“County government is complex, and getting a handle on all the respond of county government is a challenge,” Flentje said. “County commissioners come from varied backgrounds, and little of it involved preparation to run a multimillion-dollar organization. To expect part-time county commissioners to assemble once a week and have a handle on all this is pretty high expectations.”

Flentje said he believes Marion County is unique in seeking an answer at the polls.

“I don’t think there are too many counties who have gone to the voters to adopt this,” he said. “County commissioners have usually adopted it on their own.”

Creating a county administrator position changes how commissioners conduct business, and resistance to change is a threshold they have to overcome.

“Once they do move in this direction they say, ‘How could we have gotten along without a county administrator all these years?’” Flentje said.

Flentje noted that Harvey, Butler, and Reno counties are among those with county administrators. Each one functions differently, reflecting the needs and desires of their particular counties.

Even with 80 percent of Kansas counties operating without an administrator, it would be significant if Marion County adopts one.

“I think it is steady progress,” Flentje said. “It’s certainly becoming established, is what I’d say.”

Last modified Nov. 2, 2017

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