ROXBURY, N.J. - Municipal managers should spend less time worrying about matters that concern themselves and focus more on the things that are meaningful to the people they serve, says Roxbury Manager Christopher Raths.
Raths stated his position in an essay published in this month's copy of New Jersey Municipal Management Association News. Raths is treasurer of the group, known as the NJMMA. Municipal managers, such as Raths, are paid professionals hired by elected officials to run municipalities.
He titled his piece "Citizens Above Self," and it came with a disclaimer that advised "the opinions expressed in this article … are solely those of the author. They are meant to stimulate discussion and assist the Executive Board when evaluating potential policy decisions."
Raths, a member of the Roxbury Rotary Club, opened his piece by informing his readers he's a Rotarian and noting the Rotary's motto is "Service Above Self." He said that, as a member of Rotary he has "taken the liberty to revise that motto," for his essay, to "Citizen Above Self."
He then went on to gently criticize the NJMMA for too often focusing its energy on things that, while important to town managers, tend to divert their attention away from items more pressing to taxpayers in their towns.
"Over the past 30 years as a manager, I have observed many instances when perpetuating the municipal institution has superseded providing core services to our customers, the citizens," wrote Raths, who recently announced he will be retiring from his $160,000-per-year position in the spring.
He cited NJMMA concerns about "the latest union grievance, a new payroll system, police department vehicle types or that the New Jersey pension system is in serious disarray." He contended "most citizens do not care about" those items.
Raths asserted municipal managers would be better served by considering the day-to-day issues and problems that directly impact people in town.
"The majority of residents worry about their families, jobs and personal issues far beyond their concerns for the municipality," he wrote. "That is, unless they hit a pothole, drove on unplowed streets, feel unsafe in their neighborhood or school or just received their tax bill."
Acknowledging the importance of NJMMA members paying attention to the municipal organization and their employees, Raths nevertheless suggested "it is imperative that we focus on the communal good rather than personal issues."
He pointed out that the NJMMA "has spent a great deal of time focusing on the deplorable condition of the state's pension fund" but less time "on the deplorable condition of the Transportation Trust Fund." However, to residents, the Transportation Trust Fund is something that truly hits home, Raths asserted.
"The infrastructure is the backbone of any strong society and it is crumbling," he wrote. "The Society of Engineers recently gave the State of New Jersey infrastructure a "D" rating."
Failing to figure out a way to pay for maintenance and improvement of New Jersey's roads, bridges and other infrastructure "will lead to the demise of any competitive economic advantage New Jersey maintains over other states," Raths warned.
He urged his NJMMA associates to form a "united position" with regard to figuring out a way to solve the infrastructure funding problem, noting that they "as professional managers, have the expertise and experience in financing and budgeting for capital items" that makes them especially qualified to "devise and promote a more public position and the fair and appropriate way to finance" saving the infrastructure.
The bottom line of Rath's essay: Municipal managers should brainstorm and then reach out to elected officials to "develop support" for their plans to solve the problem. He conceded that doing so will not be easy.
"Such effort and positioning will be far better received by our customers/citizens than the continued effort to save our own pensions," Raths wrote. He asserted that residents "are more concerned if a bridge collapses than if our pension or retirement health benefits are changed and, therefore, my strong opinion is we reconsider our focus to community issues and away from individual concerns."
At a recent meeting of the Roxbury Mayor and Council, Raths was praised for his essay by Roxbury Mayor Jim Rilee. The manager responded that his position was not as warmly received by his NJMMA colleagues.