Reno City Council is doing fine

A group of consultants from the Urban Land Institute was commissioned by the Reno City Council to take a look at affairs in Reno, particularly the Virginia Street corridor, and offer advice. ULI has offices in D.C., London, Hong Kong and other cities.

The advice to the council was “behave like a board of directors” and don’t “micromanage.” There was other detail, but that was the gist.

We’ve long been skeptical of these “views from outside,” consultants from elsewhere who, standing off at a safe distance, prescribe solutions for an area, the consequences of which they don’t have to live with. They have no stake in the result.

We don’t like it, for instance, when Las Vegas legislators diss slow-growth governing practices in Reno. We don’t like it when federal education officials who contribute next to nothing to Nevada education funding demand standardized tests and other one-size-fits-all steps.

Behaving like a board of directors, as an analogy, has its uses. For instance, in reference to the Nevada Legislature, what corporation would tolerate its board of directors meeting only every other year?

But ULI carried the analogy way too far. The city council is an elected body, accountable to the public, not to a narrow group of shareholders. It must be responsible to the public for its agency chiefs and staffers.

We also object to the use of the term micromanage. We’ve been down this road many times before in this valley. What some call micromanagement, we call oversight.

For instance, during the tenure of Reno airport executive director Robert White, he often accused the Airport Authority Board of micromanaging, and they inevitably backed off. That turned out to be a serious mistake, as the anger management training he was directed to undergo seemed to fail, and employees and members of the public suffered from his behavior.

Many staffers and public administrators use the term micromanage to deny the right of their superiors to provide oversight, and it often masks a desire for empire building and policy making that is outside the purview of staff. The Reno City Council is an elected, part-time body responsible for oversight of an unelected, full-time administration of department chiefs, staffers and the city manager. It is not remotely analogous to the board of directors of Colgate-Palmolive or the Smithsonian Institution.

Full-time employees have an inclination to wander into policy making and then get elected officials to sign onto their decisions. That’s not the way it should work, and oversight should avoid those pitfalls.

One need only look back to the decision-making of the 1990s, with names like Oliver McMillan and Charles McNeely, and remember the way the Reno City Council was too busy to handle city business and ended up ratifying too many policies offered by redevelopment staffers.

Today’s Reno City Council has created a healthier, more intelligent and responsive process.

Our advice to the council: You’re doing fine. Ignore the ULI and keep following your instincts and skills. So far, they have not failed you.