Nebraska City Administrators on Safari

ARTICLE | Oct 15, 2014
Pictured (left to right): Michael Holton, Plainview; Joe Mangiamelli, Columbus; Dag Ingvar Jacobsen, Professor, Department of Political Science and Management, University of Agder; Dag Olaf Torjesen, Associate Professor, UiA; Ben Anderson, Robert Blair, A

This past August, city administrators from Central City, Columbus, Nebraska City and Plainview had an opportunity, through a partnership with the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) School of Public Administration , the Nebraska City/County Management Association (NCMA) and the University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway (UiA) to participate in a research and professional education project regarding Norway municipal government structures, more specifically, the relationship between local and state (national) government, compared to Nebraska.  

The country of Norway and the state of Nebraska are similar in population densities and size.  Norway has approximately five million people with the concentration of the population in three major cities.  Whereas, Nebraska has approximately two million people with the concentration in two major cities.  Oslo is like Omaha while Kristiansand is like Lincoln a major university city.  There are 458 kommunes (municipalities) in Norway and roughly 532 municipalities in Nebraska.  A vast area of northern Norway is sparsely populated and resembles much of western Nebraska.

The Nebraska city administrators met with colleagues in Kristiansand on the first day of the visit to discuss and learn how public services are provided in Norway.  Unlike United State federal government, where states govern much of the laws and mandated services of municipalities, the Norwegian national government directs most of the responsibilities of the kommunes.  It must be recognized that the Norway has wealth from off shore gas and oil drilling but also has a high tax system to support the “cradle to grave” social welfare it provides its citizens.  City administrators in Norway have a much larger plate of responsibilities that counterparts in Nebraska in that they oversee all normal basic civic services but also schools, public churches and health services.  This method of local governing is under review now as the cost of providing all of the services is sky rocketing and the national government is encouraging the formation of regional governments of multiple kommunes and counties to provide more effective public service delivery. 

The nature of the local government configuration also provides insight into the differences created by this broader range of services.  City Council (parliaments) can reach as many as 53 members for a city the size of Kristiansand, population 85,000, to a smaller community with a population of 216 having an 11 member council.  The councils are elected through their respective parties and a majority coalition formed of the larger party representations, which in turn elect the full time mayor.  The councils establish the laws and the legislation that are funneled through the Mayor to the “Radmann” (City Administrator/Manager) for the implementation process and guidelines with little or no communication from the council.  The mayor serves as the public figure for the council and as liaison between the council and administration.  A major difference in governance is the mayor and councils are all elected/reelected at the same time without staggering of terms so any consistency in delivery of municipal services falls to the appointed professional staff in each kommune.  The Radmann is supported by “advisors” who we would label as department heads.  

The second day the administrators went “on safari” to communities in closer population proximities to their own communities.  Each safari provided differing insights and opportunities for the Nebraska administrators to learn even more.  For example, Joe Mangiamelli, Columbus, was able to attend Arendalsuku, (Arendal week) where politicians from all over the country, including the Queen, Prime Minister and ministers of the numerous departments, assembled with the political parties and the various unions to present and discuss issues important to the country.  The week included public debates in the town square as well as informative conferences on all domestic issues.  On the day of his visit, Joe sat in on a panel discussion on climate change lead by the United Nations Minister and the Norway Minister of the Interior and Environment and three local environmental group representatives.  The discussion was lively and informative.

This “safari” provided an opportunity to discuss how the expansive services provided to the citizens is dealt with by the communities as directed by the national government.  Arendal is a densely populated kommune and, as such, receives less national financial support per capita than other kommunes with wider geographic areas which has a detrimental impact on its ability to provide those inclusive services.  It is, therefore, looking changes to the development codes in their town planning to provide more efficient delivery of those services in new housing units serving multiple citizens with similar needs.  Extensive new construction of private and governmental buildings, including a new town hall, were observed and showed the needs for delivering the mandated services.  Being a mountainous region, parking areas are drilled into the sides of adjacent mountainsides to maximize the use of buildable space. 

Joe Johnson from Nebraska City had the opportunity to exchange information and ideas with municipal officials on his safari to Flekkefjord.  Many issues facing local Norwegian government are common amongst the many municipalities in Nebraska.  For example, the community of Flekkefjord population has remained at approximately 7,000 since 1910 with very little change over the last century.  Likewise, the population of Nebraska City has remained at approximately 7,000 since 1910 with very little change.  Both communities were founded by historic events and their strategic locations.  Both communities attract many tourists and visitors because of the historic beauty, energetic main streets and local festivities.  Both communities have very active business groups and public/private partnerships that are dedicated to the economic growth of the community.  And, both communities struggle to gain population.  The similarities between these two communities, separated by 4,200 miles, are incredible. 

Chris Anderson and Michael Holton, Central City and Plainview, respectively, visited Songdalen   A smaller community made up of two townships.  Finsland and Greipstad were united in a merger in 1964 to form this kommune.  During the course of the visit, several areas of commonality between the Nebraska communities and Songdalen were observed.  Struggles with funding for certain services as well as complaints that the public bring to the city administrator sounded all too familiar.  While uniting into a governmental unit for efficiency, it was prevalent amongst the older generations that they still belonged to a certain town, as evidenced by the Mayor of Songdalen who spoke highly of his home, Finsland. 

Songdalen actually translates to “Valley of Song” and it was evident by the emphasis on quality of life that makes up their motto and mission.  Complete with a myriad of responsibilities, Songdalen provided its residents with what Nebraskans strive for – a community to be proud of.  They also proclaim to be the friendliest people in Norway and that is a similarity many Nebraska communities claim given their roots and Scandinavian heritage so often observed even today.  The visitors were also impressed with the high degree of cooperative workings and collaboration of efforts without in a non-adversarial manner.  The egalitarian society strives to treat everyone with dignity and equality.  This plays out in their personnel and compensation policy, approaches to managing their staffs and in their interpersonal relationships.    

The third day our group visited the University of Agder (UiA) to gain insight from the leaders of the political science and public management department . We learned about efforts in a controversial plan to merge local governments to form a regional government model of development and services delivery.  The change, as might be expected, is not as well received as hoped so it will be interesting to watch that work in progress. 

As noted, the trip was the first of many future exchanges that might occur between the two universities and government organizations.  The Nebraska City Management Association is a focal point for future exchanges and for the growth of the participation by our colleagues overseas in becoming members of the International City Management Association.  There is a great deal to be learned by future contacts.  Both universities are exploring a formal partnership with NCMA in this professional exchange.  NCMA members Mangiamelli, Anderson, Holton and Johnson will continue to maintain relationships created during this trip and will continue the exchange of ideas and learning experience from which they have benefitted.

The Nebraska city administrators were intrigues by the concept of Radmann employment.  Whereas, Nebraska administrators tenure is performance based through their contract term and the next local election, Norwegian Radmann are essentially life employees.  When the Radmann “retires” they can choose to accept a paid advisor position in the kommune.  Very odd but very interesting. 

The administrators privileged to participate in this inaugural safari gratefully appreciate the efforts of our coordinating professors at both universities for this tremendous learning experience and  to our colleagues in NCMA for sponsoring our travel expenses.