A Conversation With Chris Mathiesen Over Charter Change

Commissioner Chris Mathiesen and I had a long conversation regarding the charter and the campaign to pass it.

1,   I asked Chris about the difficulties of coordination that might exist between departments.  He told me that he felt it was a problem.  The question was, how serious a problem.  We agreed that in any large institution, the problem of coordination between elements of an organization are going to exist.  Each department has its own sense of priorities and friction between departments over priorities is endemic to bureaucracies.  Having a central manager as advocated by the charter commission is not going to end such issues.  He did, however, believe that the commission form of government exacerbated this problem.  He told me that he believed that having a city manager would significantly affect better coordination.

2. I asked him how much time he and his deputy spend on administrative duties in the running of the Public Safety Department.  He estimated that he spends well in excess of twenty hours a week.  While he is in his office frequently, most of his work is done away from the office responding to emails and reading documents.  He told me that his deputy spends over thirty-five hours a week on administration. I then asked him to consider how much of their time is spent simply reviewing decisions and policies recommended by the regular staff.

3. I asked this because I wanted to explore to what extent the Commissioner and the deputy simply represented another layer of bureaucracy as charter supporters claim.  He told me that in fact, most of his time was spent doing just that.  There is a very capable civil service administrator in his office who prepares much of these materials.  He basically told me that he thought that in spite of the many hours of work he and his deputy devoted to the job, that eliminating them and having the administrator in their office report to a city manager would not require a great deal more additional staff time to replace them.  He was careful to point out to me that the nature of what goes on in other departments is very different from his and that he was unwilling to draw any conclusions about the other departments based on what goes on in his.

4. He supports the general direction of the charter in terms of the proposed mayor.  While he acknowledged the potential for conflict between the mayor under this new structure and the city manager, he was less concerned about it than I am.  He thought the $40,000.00 salary for the mayor was fair because the mayor would have more duties than the council members.  These involved not just the ceremonial duties.  The mayor will nominate individuals to city boards which will require city council approval.  He saw the mayor as a liaison between the city manager and the council.  He thought that dealing with the many contracts that would need review and signing would require significant time.

5. I know from a previous discussion that he does not share my concerns over changing the length of the term of office from two to four years.  He thinks it will have little impact on the council members sense of vulnerability regarding the public’s ability to remove them.

6. He thought that many of the promises being promulgated by the proponents of charter change were excessive.  He did not think the new charter would result in savings of $400,000.00.  He agreed that they had not budgeted for the support costs for the new council and the mayor.  He felt very strongly that the city staffing is “bare bones.”  If we are to continue to provide the current level of services we would need to be prepared to hire more people.  He thought the idea of not filling positions by attrition as advocated by the charter commission was unrealistic.

6, For all his concerns about the current form of government he rejected any suggestion that the city administration was “broken.”  It functions reasonably well but he believes it would function better under a new charter.  He expressed grave concern over the intemperate and exaggerated arguments put forward over the charter and lamented with me the absence of civil and open discourse.

In a follow up conversation I asked Commissioner Mathiesen to respond to the door hanger “Its Time” (the advocates for charter change) is circulating. Here are some of the claims made and Chris’ response:

    1. “Save money, lower taxes: Immediately: Half a million $$ per year.”  Chris responded this is not true
    2. “Hold city hall accountable: No more $750,000.00 office renovations while essential services don’t get done.”  Chris told me that city hall is in great need of repair.  He told me he would prefer a more comprehensive plan for the renovation but he rejected the idea of equating addressing badly needed renovations with cuts in service.
    3. “End Delays: Geyser Road path: 13 Years”  Chris rejected the idea that the long gestation of this project was due to the commission form of government
    4. “End Delays: New Police station: 20 years and counting”  Chris rejected the idea that the long gestation of this project was due to the commission form of government
    5. “End Delays: East Side fire station: 20 years and counting” Chris rejected the idea that the long gestation of this project was due to the commission form of government


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