From the 1950s through the ’70s, Staples High had a thriving American Field Service program.
Each year our school and community welcomed students from abroad, to live with host families. In return, we sent teenagers overseas to do the same. It was often a life-changing experience.
Tim Honey was one of those “exchange students.” In 1963, he was in South Africa. It was the height of apartheid; Nelson Mandela was trial for sabotage.
Sixty years later, Honey — a Staples football, basketball and baseball star — is still in touch with his roommate. He calls his time there “a great learning experience.”
When Mandela was elected president, Honey realized, “governance really matters. Under him, South Africa got it right.”
He has spent his life thinking about governance.
After Cornell University, and a 5-month honeymoon in 1971 hitchhiking from East Africa to Cape Town, Honey worked with the National League of Cities. He earned a master’s in political science at Georgetown University, then spent 9 years in Portland, Maine as assistant and head city manager.
After a stint in Rhode Island directing the mortgage housing finance agency, he was appointed city manager of Boulder, Colorado.
Where Portland had been focused on economic development, Boulder was a hotbed of political ideas. There was advocacy on all sides of every issue.
His years there cemented Honey’s belief that — at all levels — “governance matters.”
And, he believes, city manager is an excellent way to govern.
The role of a city manager — a CEO or chief administrative officer, who serves in a mayor and council type of government — began in the Progressive Era of the 1890s to 1910s. Presidents McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson wanted to clean up the corruption of (usually Democratic) machine politics, by professionalizing the civil service in areas like hiring, firing and delivering services.
City managers are part of a well-run professional association, with a strong code of ethics.
“You don’t need to be a Democrat or a Republican to collect garbage correctly,” Honey notes.
Most big cities, and many medium-sized ones, had (and often still have) city managers.
Southern New England is an exception. About 30% of the municipalities here have a city manager, primarily in the central and northern part of the state.
Westport does not have a city manager. We’re run — as some New England towns still are — by a board of selectmen (or in our case now, selectwomen).
For over 100 years after our founding in 1835, Westport was governed by a traditional town meeting.
In 1949, voters approved a non-partisan Representative Town Meeting (RTM). That year, 124 Westporters ran for 26 seats. There are now 36 seats, 4 in each of 9 districts. Some elections have 5 or 6 candidates; some are uncontested.
Six other towns in Connecticut still use the RTM form of government.
Most city councils have just 7 to 15 members, Honey says. That makes for a “much more manageable” legislative branch — and an effective working relationship between a city manager, mayor and council.
“Issues are so complex today, even on a local level,” Honey says.
Land use is one. Another is traffic: How do you tame it? How do you make a town or city more pedestrian-friendly? How do you comply with ADA requirements?
All of that, he says, takes professional work that a city manager is trained for.
As city manager in Boulder, he had a network of colleagues — in similar places like Palo Alto and Eugene, Oregon — that he could work with. They shared common problems, and offered each other advice.
Should Westport think about a city manager?
“My dad was on the RTM in the 1960s,” Honey says. “When he retired to Rhineback, New York, he was on the town council. He advocated for a city manager.
“He was unsuccessful. It’s a hard sell, to make a change like that. You need neighbor groups that don’t like the current system to come forward. They need to ask for more accountability, more innovation.”
Honey is no longer a city manager. After leaving Boulder in 1997, he worked for Sister Cities International as executive director.
In 2006 he and his wife sold their Washington home. They moved to Cape Town, South Africa. For 5 months they volunteered in a township soup kitchen, and on community projects. It was “one of the best things we ever did.”
They moved back to Maine, where he worked with the International City Management Association. He developed a program focusing on African cities, and the role that local government can play in impoverished communities.
He just returned from his 20th trip to the continent. It’s been 6 decades since his first visit, when as a teenage exchange student he learned about the importance of governance.
Now in his late 70s, Tim Honey is as passionate about governing as he ever was. He invites anyone who wants to learn more about the role of city managers to email him: Stephen.firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Hat tips: Carl Addison Swanson and Tom Allen)
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