Research by Tallahassee Reports indicates that Anita Favors-Thompson is the most powerful City Manager in the state of Florida. This finding is based on a comparison of the formal powers of city managers of major cities in Florida, actions taken by Anita Favors-Thompson and interviews with community leaders.
While Anita Favors-Thompson receives high approval ratings for the delivery of core services, our findings indicate that on issues dealing with electric utilities, growth-management, and the airport, the centralization of power in the hands of one person is beginning to raise concerns in the community.
Anita Favors-Thompson has been Tallahassee’s City Manager for almost 14 years. As City Manager she is charged with spending close to $800 million to deliver the vital services of our community while keeping three out of the five city commissioners satisfied.
The fact that these commissioners are part-time, face re-election every four years, and make decisions based on information that is provided by the City Manager, clearly gives Anita Favors-Thompson the freedom and influence to get things done.
And based on customer surveys, this freedom and influence has served the city well. The most recent survey showed that 85% of those polled rated the quality of services provided by the city as excellent or good. These high ratings give the City Manager a lot of room to operate.
For example, when a city commissioner was told they voted to create a $130,000 a year position for the “green department” they were surprised. “Frankly, I was not aware of that. This is a part-time job and I do not have time to dig into the details of every vote”… said the commissioner. “At some point you have to trust staff.”
And that is what enhances the power and authority of Anita Favors Thompson –trust. With city approval ratings for core services well over 80 percent and the fact that incumbent city commissioners rarely lose elections, there is little public criticism from her superiors. It is clear that her performance insulates her and her executive staff from probing questions and any public criticism.
Another factor that adds to her success is her ability to keep the Wednesday city commission meetings as predictable as possible. Unlike the Leon County Commission, seldom are their any contentious debates among the elected commissioners. Sources say that commissioners are aware of the “rules” and rarely stray from the script.
This ability to get the job done and keep the elected officials happy, allows the city manager to extend her influence beyond her formal structure of authority.
For example, a recent initiative by a local business organization to measure and evaluate city government was “killed by Anita” said an organization member. “It is tough to stand up against taxes and utilities when you depend on the city for a permit. These people have long memories” said one local builder.
Another example of the city managers extended reach is the recent re-establishment of the Citizens Advisory Committee for Utilities. The City has over 30 citizen’s advisory boards that are under the Treasure Clerk, a Charter Officer that reports to the City Commission, not the City Manger. But when asked why the City Manager is in charge of the Citizens Advisory Committee for Utilities, instead of the Treasure Clerk, a city official would only say “that’s the way they wanted to do it.”
Comparison of City Manager Authority
After reviewing organizational charts from major cities across the state of Florida, Tallahassee Reports determined that there were two major areas where there was significant variation in the authority of the City Manager position. These functions include the operations of airports and public utilities.
Tallahassee Reports compiled comparisons with Tallahassee, Gainesville, Orlando, Jacksonville and Lakeland with regards to the authority the City manager has over these governmental functions.
|Responsible for Electric Utility||Separate Authority||Separate Authority||City Manager||Director of Utility||City Manager|
|Responsible for Water
Waste Water Utility
|Separate Authority||Separate Authority||City Manager||Director of Utility||City Manager|
|Responsible for Gas Utility||Separate Authority||Separate Authority||City Manager||Director of Utility||City Manager|
|Controls Appts. To Utility Board||Elected Officials||Elected Officials||City Manager||Elected Officials||Elected Officials|
|Responsible for Airport Operations||Separate Authority||Separate Authority||City Manager||Separate Authority||City Manager|
|Controls Appts. To Airport Board||Elected Officials||Elected Officials||Mayor||Elected Officials||Elected Officials|
The chart above shows who has ultimate authority over various governmental functions.
In Jacksonville and Orlando, a separate authority – appointed by elected officials – has the responsibility for the operations of most utilities functions. In Gainesville, the Director of the Utility is appointed by, and reports directly to the City Commission. In addition, the utility advisory board is appointed by, and reports to, the City Commission. In Lakeland, the City Manger is responsible for utility operations; however the utility advisory board is appointed by and reports to, the City Commission.
In Tallahassee, there is not one aspect of utility operations, which accounts for approximately $360 million, that Ms. Favors does not have complete control. The General Manager of the electric utility reports to the City Manager. The electric utility budget is approved by the City Manager’s budget director. And finally, the members of the Citizens Advisory Committee – unlike other advisory committees – are appointed by, and report to the City Manager.
With regards to the airport responsibilities, Orlando, Jacksonville, and Gainesville all have airport authorities staffed by members appointed by elected officials. In addition, Panama City – to the west – and the city of Valdosta-to the north, both have airport authorities staffed by appointments by various elected officials.
The COT has an Airport Advisory aboard that is appointed by the Mayor, but all operations are the responsibility of the city manager.
Reviewing the chart above, it is difficult not to conclude the City Manager of Tallahassee has more authority than any other City Manager in the state Florida.
The City Manager’s detractors, and after 13 years in such a position there are bound to be some, say that her focus on making decisions without much public debate is beginning to wear thin in a city that is changing and struggling at the same time.
In addition, some are concerned about her growing influence on issues that deal more with policy than city operations. Such issues include the joint dispatch center, the consolidation of growth management and her unquestioned authority over utility functions.
Ironically, her approach may be just what Tallahassee needs with regards to garbage service, public works and parks and recreation, however, on regional issues that require community consensus on policy, some say it is time the city opened up the process.
State representative, Michelle Rehwinkel-Vasilinda, during this year’s legislative session, floated the idea of having the Florida state legislature create an airport authority for Tallahassee. And while she did not follow through on the issue, she urged the community to start a conversation about the airport and its impact on the future of Tallahassee.
Rehwinkel-Vasilinda said, “our conversation should include questions about why the Tallahassee Regional Airport has the highest aviation fuel prices in the state. It should also include who we will be hiring as our new airport director. We need the best airport director we can attract with a track record of maximizing airline service.”
Also, mild mannered and will respected community leader Jim Croteau, a member of the Citizens Advisory Board for Utilities, argued publicly that the Citizens Advisory Board should not report to the City Manager, but should report directly to the City Commission, like most other advisory boards.
In addition, several community leaders have told Tallahassee Reports that the advisory board process should be overhauled and reconfigured to promote more independence from the City Manager.
Based on interviews, leaders say the current situation has deterred many people from getting involved in the process. “Just like the last city charter review recommendations that took eight months to get ignored by the City Commission, the advisory board process does not seek real input on the major issues,” said a prominent community leader.
Would more independent advisory boards make a difference? One need only look to the city of Lakeland where the citizen’s electric utility committee public debated and voted against smart meters. The discussion was covered in the local media and raised serious questions about the cost and benefits of the technology.
The City of Tallahassee will continue to grow, and with that growth will come more citizens who are interested in being heard. It appears that other cities in Florida have addressed this issue by getting more citizens involved on independent boards.
Could it be that Tallahassee has outgrown the governing structure that places so much power in the hands of one person? This question can only be answered by our elected leaders and/or the failure or success of citizen petitions to the charter of the city of Tallahassee that call for a more decentralized form of local government.