Superior's history with a city manager
A look back at how the city fared under a city manager. Voters will be asked to weigh in on moving to a city manager form of government Nov. 3.
Voters will have to decide: “Shall the City of Superior establish a City Administrator position and a part-time Mayor?”
The question was proposed by former Councilor Dan Olson and placed on the ballot by a divided Superior City Council in January, to determine if people think the council should move ahead with a recommendation to hire a professional manager and reduce the elected mayor to a part-time position.
The recommendation came from a report by RW Management Group on things the city could do to improve operational efficiencies. An author of that report, Ed Henschel, admitted his bias after serving as a city administrator.
It wouldn’t be the first time the city hired a manager to work with the council to govern the city. In the 1940s and 1950s, the city was run under a manager-council form of government.
The push to change the city’s form of government started in 1938, when the property tax burden shifted from nonresident property owners to local property owners, according to Scott Stein, author of “The City Manager in Superior.”
The nation was still in the grips of The Great Depression, and Superior was struggling financially — bad roads, outdated equipment, debt, an operating deficit and a fire department in need of modernization.
Then-Mayor Bryn Ostby, who served from 1935 to 1941, wrote in a 1939 report that it prior administrations were responsible for borrowing “to the legal limit” that prompted residents to seek an audit of the city’s finances. Ostby wrote “the group most eager to point an accusing finger upon the Mayor and Council are the ones who complain the loudest when the facts are given out.”
Those who favored the city manager plan were mainly businessmen who liked the idea of streamlined government and envisioned themselves as those who would be wealthy enough to run for the unpaid council seats, Stein wrote.
When the measure was finally slated for a vote in April 1940, an ad placed in the Evening Telegram by the Central Committee for the Council-Manager Plan outlined a thumbnail sketch of the plan: Voters would elect seven councilors at-large from the city. The seven councilmen would pass all ordinances, resolutions and set city policies. They would be responsible for approving the budget, setting the tax rate and hiring and firing the city manager.
The city manager, chosen on merit, would carry out the council’s policies, prepare the budget, hire and fire city employees, and study city needs and make recommendations to the council.
The plan was adopted April 2, 1940, with about 59% of voters in favor of it.
Problems plagued the new system of government. City managers struggled to get along with the council. Superior’s first city manager, Robert Beuchner, came to Superior in June 1941 after serving as a manager for Piqua, Ohio; 17 months later, he was fired.
After challenging the council’s decision and while waiting for a decision from the high court, George Dietrich was hired as the city manager. Dietrich served four months when the April elections led to the defeat of anti-Beuchner council members, and Beuchner was hired again. He served until October 1946, when he was fired again.
William Deegan was hired in 1947, but his term was also filled with bad relationships with council members, and he resigned in January 1950 to take a city manager position in Quincy, Massachusetts.
In April 1950, Robert Baumberger was hired, but like his predecessors, the relationship with the council was strained, so much so that Councilor Lawrence Hagen introduced an initiative to return Superior to a weak mayor system in 1951. The measure needed a two-thirds majority vote of the council to pass, and failed with a 4-2 vote. Baumberger stayed on until he was fired in October 1955.
The final city manager was hired in January 1957. When Walton Taylor, a city manager in Missoula, Montana, accepted the position, petitions had been filed to place a referendum on the ballot to do away with the manager-council plan and return to a weak mayoral system. In 1958, voters restored the mayoral system with a 51% majority, prompting Taylor’s departure in April 1958.
The following year, former Councilor Hagen was elected as Superior’s first four-year mayor and served one term.
In April 1995, a resident-driven referendum to adopt a city manager form of government again was defeated by 80% of voters.
“The community had come full circle,” Stein wrote in his December 1995 essay about Superior’s experience with city managers. “No longer did they want an impersonal government run by ‘experts’ and businessmen in order to improve the economic situation. Rather they chose a conventional, conservative, more accountable form of government, and it has remained the choice of residents ever since.”