AUBURN, Maine — Glenn Aho’s part in the grand experiment of restructuring municipal government in Maine is finished — at least locally.
But the experiment itself goes on. It must, Aho said.
“People have been talking about reinventing local government for years, but nobody has done it,” Aho said. “Well, we tried in Auburn.”
Auburn city councilors voted at their Oct. 17 meeting to remove Aho from his job as city manager and put him on paid administrative leave. Councilors are scheduled to ratify that decision Monday night.
Aho is scheduled to discuss his philosophy on municipal government and his controversial plan to restructure Auburn staff Wednesday as a part of the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service. The lecture, at the Wishcamper Center in Portland, is free and open to the public.
Aho said he began working on his lecture before the City Council’s decision, but his change in employment hasn’t changed the content of the speech.
“Auburn has a story to tell,” he said. “For the last decade or more, people have been writing about reinventing government. Now, I am saying: Here is your laboratory. This is what can happen and this is what we need to make other municipalities aware of. I don’t want them to become paralyzed and afraid of doing something innovate and creative because this is what can happen.”
Aho came to the city in March 2008, leaving a job as Lincoln’s town manager. He said he had watched as government-limiting proposals such as TABOR, a taxpayer bill of rights, were put forward again and again.
“Governments have to come up with some different way to operate, unless what we want is a higher property-tax burden,” Aho said.
He said he was given that opportunity in the spring of 2010 when councilors called for a $1 million cut in spending. Although councilors adopted much more modest cuts, Aho said he was forced to operate the city with a smaller budget. He spent the next several months developing a management structure based on modern management theory and teamwork.
Aho’s plan grouped city departments into teams — police and fire under the Public Safety Team; finance, IT, city clerk and human resources under the Public Administration Team; and planning, engineering, Parks and Recreation and Public Works under the Public Services Team.
Department heads from each team met weekly to discuss problems, come up with possible solutions and share resources.
The new structure was designed to make city management more nimble, efficient and responsive to residents’ needs — and it worked, Aho said.
But his tenure saw several longtime city employees step down. None has been willing to speak publicly, but the changes alarmed city councilors. Some councilors asked Aho for the employees’ personnel files, but he refused to release them.
“State law and the City Charter says they can’t have those,” Aho said. “The only personnel file they are allowed to have is mine.”
That conflict made Aho’s relationship with several councilors even worse, he said. Many councilors involved themselves in day-to-day city business, rather than setting public policy.
“Policy decisions, there are good and bad policies, and elected officials have to make both,” Aho said. “You may not agree on policy. I may be an environmentalist and you may not agree with that. That’s policy and it’s subjective. But operations is just that, working within the set policy.”
Aho’s management changes were complex, but he said councilors didn’t have to understand the details.
“You may set policy for NASA, but that doesn’t mean that you, as a U.S. senator, can build a rocket,” Aho said. Councilors are elected to set policy, set a budget and direct the manager.
“I don’t know if there was anything that could have been done with this council because they were so divided and indecisive,” Aho said.
He said he was surprised by the council’s decision and had not been told what specifically led to the decision. He’s not sure whether he’d return to his former job if a new council offered it and he’s not sure what he’ll do next.
But he hopes the changes he started in Auburn are allowed to continue.
“This is a great opportunity for Auburn to be first at improving local government, and the achievements we make today will be around for a long time,” Aho said. “Every generation has its time, and this is our time.”
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