There will be time at the other end of this year, after Dwight Livingston finishes what now will be his last mayoral term, to sum up his nearly half-century of devoted service to North Platte.
He surely has earned the right to step back, after 38½ years on the police force followed by what will be eight years as mayor, to give more time to his wife and family.
And he has a busy final year ahead in City Hall, as Livingston pointed out in the letter he released last week saying he won’t seek a third term.
Some of his most important decisions lie ahead in the next few weeks as the mayor, with help from a City Council interview committee, helps further shape the appointed city leadership team he will leave behind.
So now that we know North Platte will have a different city administrator and a new mayor at this time next year, it’s a good time to review how our form of city government is designed to work.
We’ll start with the position Jim Hawks is preparing to vacate May 1 and which Livingston has to fill, pending council approval, well before his own term ends.
Nearly every city in Nebraska has a day-to-day boss like Hawks — but they don’t all have the same authority.
It depends on whether he or she works under a mayor-council form of government, as North Platte does, or a “council-manager” form like Scottsbluff, Ogallala and a few other cities.
(A quick aside: Villages are set up differently than either of those forms, and Nebraska City still uses a “city commission” form that fell out of general use many decades ago.)
Mayor-council governments have city administrators. They supervise the city departments, and of course they work closely with the council.
But the administrator isn’t hired to be the city CEO. He or she ultimately works for the mayor, who decides for himself or herself how “hands-on” he or she will be and how much to delegate to the administrator.
In a council-manager city, by contrast, Hawks’ position is called “city manager” instead of “city administrator.” And its holder indeed is the city’s chief executive officer, much like the superintendent in a school district.
Voters in such cities elect their council, which in turn hires and supervises the manager. They don’t elect a mayor. The council president usually is called “mayor” and handles most ceremonial duties. But he or she doesn’t have the built-in authority that Mayor Livingston has in North Platte.
Long story short: A city manager answers above all to the council. A city administrator answers to the mayor first, then to the council. North Platte has the latter.
So what do we want out of our city administrator — or, more importantly, out of our mayor?
Jim Hawks has worked under four mayors. His approach has been that of the steady hand, being well informed about everything, offering wise counsel and being equipped to carry out whatever the mayor and council want done — without ever forgetting whom the voters put in charge.
Some Nebraska city administrators do exercise as much control as city managers, but only because a given mayor chooses to delegate that much power.
Conversely, we’re also aware of “mayors” in council-manager cities who were strong community leaders simply because they were that good in bringing their community together.
One should want a city administrator (or, in those other cities, a city manager) who brings a highly competent continuity to City Hall as elected leaders come and go. Though turnover can be good, turnover for turnover’s sake is not.
Mayor Livingston has a critical choice to make in nominating Jim Hawks’ successor. But with his own pending retirement, the most critical choice for city leadership this year won’t be made by him.
It’ll be made by North Platte voters in May and November, when they decide what kind of mayor they want to succeed Livingston (along with what kind of mixture they want on the City Council he or she will work with).
So as our city leaders think about who’s best to fill the west-side office in City Hall’s main suite, don’t forget that you, as a voter, also need to be thinking about who’s best to fill the office on the opposite side.