What Can Maine Learn From Oliver Porter?

New GA town can teach a thing or two about governance

Who is Oliver Porter and why should you care?

This interim city manager from a town very few have heard of has a lot to teach all of us about what local government is, how it should work, and what it should be. Unless you’re from Georgia you’ve probably never heard of Sandy Springs – a suburb of Atlanta in Northeast Fulton County.

Already gaining national attention, Sandy Springs will soon become a familiar phrase in the halls of public administration. After nearly 30 years of fighting, citizens approved a referendum for incorporation on June 21 with 94.6 percent of the vote – in effect seceding from Fulton County. Soon thereafter, the Georgia General Assembly passed legislation approving city-hood; finally allowing residents to “obtain accountable and responsive local government for the citizens of Sandy Springs.”

Sandy Springs residents were upset with dismal service, a lack of local control, and the skyrocketing costs of public services. Now that they’ve wrestled control away, the new city has a unique opportunity to redefine how municipal government should look, function, and interacts with citizens. City leaders are starting with a blank slate enabling them to ask the fundamental questions about what role government should play.

Taking a page from management guru Peter Drucker, every “traditional” service or function will need to prove its worthiness and proper role and place within government. Absent any program history, city officials are able to apply Drucker’s test for business “if we weren’t doing this yesterday, would we do it today” to the operation of municipal government. There is little doubt that some services will no longer be provided by Sandy Springs-either because they’ve outgrown their purpose, they no longer are effective, or they are outside the role of government.

Secondly, city officials are determining whether to “make or buy” public services.

City officials expect to contract out as many services as possible to the private sector. In addition, they hope to partner with other neighboring municipal governments for service or even with the county. All of these options, for the most part, are preferred over ‘making’ their own internal bureaucracy.

With a focus on efficiency, but more importantly effectiveness of public service Sandy Springs has embraced the power of competition to determine how services will be provided. Public and private entities alike are competing for the right to provide services in Sandy Springs. In addition, city officials see the value and power of a contract to guarantee high quality services-and plan on using them for all services, including those potentially “made” with internal resources.

All of this activity is taking place under the fearless direction of Oliver Porter who was appointed by Gov. Sonny Perdue to oversee a transition board. With the help of countless volunteers, Porter is steering relatively uncharted waters.

The plan is modeled after the city of Weston, Fla. With 65,000 residents Weston incorporated after years of poor public service and spiraling costs. Today the city has fewer than a half-dozen employees – most of Weston’s services were privatized resulting in better service at significantly lower cost. In the words of John Flint, Weston’s City Manager, “Over what the county was providing, there was a dramatic increase in the quality of services, with the next jurisdiction in the county more than double our property taxes.”

Given Maine’s high tax burden, cost of government and stale business climate local governments can learn a thing or two from Oliver Porter and Sandy Springs’ approach to governance. All levels of government should periodically ask the fundamental questions about how governments operate and whether there is a better way. What types of services and programs are essential and necessary to provide, and perhaps more importantly what are not.

Geoffrey F. Segal is a senior fellow at the Maine Heritage Policy Center and is director of privatization and government reform at Reason Foundation.