Growth leads to governing change in Harrisburg

While it went largely unnoticed by residents, a recent shift in Harrisburg’s governing structure marked the latest stage in the town’s evolution from rural railroad stop to booming suburb.

On July 13, the Town Council voted unanimously to revise Harrisburg’s charter and move the 42-year-old town from its traditional mayor-council system to a council-manager model. The change, which quietly became official Aug. 1, essentially made Town Administrator Mike Rose Harrisburg’s CEO, with the Town Council now functioning as a board of directors.

“The council-manager form of government combines the political leadership of elected officials and the administrative experience of a professional manager,” Rose explained. “The mayor and members of Town Council set policy and establish the goals and vision of the town, and the manager works towards implementation. It is a system designed to promote effective management with transparency and accountability.”

The shift in governing structure brings Harrisburg in line with most other Charlotte-area suburbs. It also reflects the challenges ahead for one of the region’s fastest-growing, development-ready municipalities. A flood of new residential subdivisions and apartment complexes has pushed the population to almost 14,000, a 207 percent increase since 2000.

“As a municipality grows, governing becomes more complex,” explained Kim Nelson, an associate professor at the UNC School of Government in Chapel Hill. “Hiring a professional manager who is trained in local government finance and budgeting, ethics and human capital management, among other skills, to run the day-to-day operations can help a municipality adapt to that increasing complexity.”

In Harrisburg’s case, the town had essentially been operating under a council-manager system already, said Rose, whose title officially changed to town manager on Aug. 1.

“Many of the duties of a manager were being handled by the administrator position, so the move to formalize the change was the next step,” Rose said.

Rose said there was no opposition to the change, and no residents spoke at a June 8 public hearing on the topic.

Nelson said that while governing structure doesn’t guarantee a well-run municipality, the council-manager system has its distinct advantages.

“Research indicates that the presence of a professional manager leads to less conflict among elected officials and staff, greater innovation and insulation from some corrupt acts,” she said.

That’s essentially because the town manager’s expertise allows him or her to identify issues and offer solutions that elected officials might not think about.

Research is less clear on how form of government relates to fiscal outcomes, Nelson added.

“Some argue that the appointment of a professional to run the day-to-day operations, as opposed to an elected mayor, dilutes accountability and confuses citizens about who is in charge,” Nelson said.

More than half of U.S. municipalities with populations of more than 10,000 employ the council-manager form of government, Nelson added.

Rose, a 1984 graduate of UNC Charlotte, was named Harrisburg administrator in August of 2012 after serving in the same role for nearly 14 years in Pineville.

John Deem is a freelance writer: