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Council made the right choice for city manager

March 31, 2012
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

To the editor:

Kudos to City Council! The vote to select John Szerlag as our next City Manager was an outstanding decision. Although he would have been my choice, I was completely surprised by his selection.

Mr. Szerlag's accomplishments as City Manager in Troy, Michigan, are exemplary and are just the type of remedies we need here. For example, in addition to being City Manager he served as Executive Director of the Troy Downtown Development Authority - that would save us over $100,000 annually. He privatized the entire Troy building department, privatized Troy's municipal golf courses, reduced the in house engineering department by 50 percent, hybridized Troy's planning department with consultants on an as-needed basis, achieved a AAA bond rating, successfully negotiated four labor agreements obtaining at least 10 percent in concessions (it took Cape Coral more than two years of negotiations to obtain 5 percent in concessions while abandoning $1,092,690 in annual agreed to parity concessions) all while maintaining a high level of services WITHOUT RAISING PROPERTY TAXES quite an accomplishment.

Why then am I so surprised at his selection in view of this track record? Because prior City Manager, Gary King, was pilloried and fired for attempting many of these same reforms by the very council that selected Mr. Szerlag!

This was particularly astonishing as the last Cape election brought into focus who is working for whom. Traditionally, we view a public servant as someone working for the public good implying a sacrifice of a better material life to do so. Can we still define today's relationship that way when City salaries, health care and pensions are significantly better than Cape residents who work in the private sector? The last census revealed that Cape municipal workers on the average made approximately $10,000 more than private sector Cape residents.

Public employee unions across the nation are in fact dominant in their relationship with politicians and we have tax and borrowing decisions being driven by public spending. The only conclusion is that we are now working now for them. Only when unions are threatened with layoffs are they inclined to compromise and sometimes not even then. That is how we come to work for them. Spending decisions cannot define tax and borrowing (to include unfunded future obligations) decisions. They must flow from them. I saw this as a Councilmember and before that as a member of the Budget Review Committee.

Janet and I make our spending decisions based on our income. In contrast, public employee unions have a different dynamic. They negotiate contracts for pay and benefits with politicians and through the electoral process they do all they can to install and keep in office those who will support them. They influence elected officials with campaign funds, volunteers, votes, etc. The politicians in turn pay for what the unions demand with tax money. In off year elections when we have an apathetic 16 percent voter turnout, the unions become the master of the relationship.

While on City Council, I met many fine and devoted City employees who are hard workers, are good at what they do and earned what they got. However, as in many organizations, there are also those who "work" without or with minimal results. We need to restore the public sector to a place where those in charge are empowered to make those distinctions and reward those who perform well.

Council dialog during the voting process was most interesting. Many seemed to recognize that Mr. Szerlag's union negotiating skills were of value while Mr. Nesta stated in sentence fragments that he was not comfortable with Mr. Szerlag due to issues involving "hard nosed unions." If you can believe it, Mr. Nesta wanted assurance that the unions and our citizens were treated as equals! He then went on to state that Ft. Knox, where his preferred candidate is from, is similar to Cape Coral. Having lived in many cities and military installations here and abroad, I can assure you there is very little similarity in how the two are managed.

Several commented on Mr. Szerlag's ability to work with others while the Mayor gave him high marks for problem solving and having UEP experience as well as the candor to advise Council when they were wrong. Mr. McClain's willingness to switch his vote to Mr. Szerlag provided the momentum to get seven votes for Mr. Szerlag with Mr. Nesta being the lone hold out remaining true to his base.

I wish Mr. Szerlag well and look forward to his accomplishing reforms similar to those he achieved in Troy, Michigan. It is clear that he has the right prescription for the cure. Let us hope that the powers that be let him administer the medicine.

Oh, by the way, did I mention that Troy has a defined contribution NOT a defined benefit retirement plan and 162 volunteers in their fire department?

Bill Deile

Cape Coral



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