Small Town Mayor Faces Resistance To Changing Local Government Structure

May 7, 2019

A small town mayor in eastern Iowa is facing some resistance to his plan to restructure his local government. The proposal is meant to redistribute the responsibilities of managing the city in order to help maintain and grow the community in the long-term, but it’s not clear the political will is there.

Amid discussions of a broken swing at a local playground and the cost of bussing neighborhood kids to the pool over the summer, the Lone Tree City Council considered what might be necessary to support and sustain the town’s population of about 1,300 residents in the long-term.

Lone Tree Mayor Jon Green has a big ask: he wants to hire the town’s first city administrator, transferring responsibilities from part-time officials to a paid professional, even doing away with his own position, that of an elected mayor.

He formally raised the proposal at a Monday City Council meeting.

"We're basically volunteers. Our compensation is very, very little [...] You're not going to find that many people in a small town that can put in those extra hours." - Tyler Baird, Lone Tree City Council

“Communities deserve professional leadership. We’re all professional folks up here, but this isn’t any of ours specialty,” Green said.

Even with an understanding boss who lets Green patch together paid time-off from his day job, the first-term mayor says part-time officials like him can’t keep up with the community’s long-term needs. He wants a full-time “advocate” on staff who can focus on how to grow the population, and make sure the K-12 school in town is still open a few decades down the road.

Green has set a ballpark potential cost of $150,000 a year for the position, including salary, benefits and discretionary expenses. The city currently employs three part-time and three full-time staffers.

“I think that it’s a worthwhile investment in the future of the community. But I understand that we have a financial duty to the city,” Green said. “I think that this would pay for itself over time.”

The most expansive version of his proposal would alter the city’s structure of government under Iowa Code, to include an empowered city manager, and a city council that would elect a mayor from among its members. But Green says he’s open to community input, and says the city has a number of options, which may or may not include a structural change to local governance.

"My biggest fear is if we started to move forward quick with a city administrator, how are we gonna pay them? On a small budget [...] I just think it's too fast, too soon." Ryan Ronan, Lone Tree City Council

City Council Member Tyler Baird says the part-time board struggles to handle the workload as it is. Shifting some of those responsibilities to another staffer could make elected office more feasible for a broader swathe of the community, he said.  

“We’re basically volunteers, our compensation is very, very little. Especially for the mayor with the amount of time that’s expected to be put in. You’re not going to find that many people in a small town that can put in those extra hours, to have office hours,” Baird said. “We use our own vacation time from our day jobs to do those things. So you’re really excluding a whole group of people and a whole large portion of our community from even being able to run.”

But some local leaders say the city isn’t ready for structural change to how the local government operates. City Council Member Ruby Dickey said she wants to see the community move forward, but within its current system of government.

“Have something like this on our wish list, yes, to grow and add to what we have. Changing our form of government I don’t think I’ll be in favor of,” Dickey said. “I think our community likes and respects the fact that they have the opportunity to elect a mayor.”

Even if the community was on board with the plan, it’s not clear how the small city would finance what could be a six figure annual investment, at a time when the community is shouldering a multi-million dollar investment in upgrades to a wastewater treatment plant.

“My biggest fear is if we started to move forward quick with a city administrator, how are we gonna pay them? On a small budget?” asked City Council member Ryan Ronan. “I just think it’s too fast, too soon.”

Green says he’s open to feedback from residents, and doesn’t want to rush any changes that might be adopted, but he says considerable investments are needed to sustain the town. Green did not offer a specific resolution at Monday’s meeting, but says he hopes to prompt a broader discussion about Lone Tree’s future.

“That’s why I wanted to make a big, splashy proposal, just to get everyone thinking,” Green said. “What is your vision for how we can continue to have a proactive development of this community?”