If you saw the television news story about the recent death of long-ago Champaign City Manager Warren Browning, you would think he had been a much-beloved figure around city hall.
It was, as it often is for city managers, more complicated than that. City managers are the professionals who are supposed to administer city government based on the policy directives from elected council members. And Browning negotiated the sometimes-treacherous and varied whims and demands of the elected city council in Champaign for 11 1/2 years, an unusually long time in that profession.
But societal and political changes in the 1970s, heightened by the fact that the electorate in Champaign was evolving, prompted Browning to resign his position in March 1974, tellingly taking a pay cut to move his family to Brownsville, Texas. He lasted less than eight months in Brownsville.
His next stop was Lombard, in Chicago's western suburbs. It was there that Browning told the Chicago Sun-Times that walking a political tightrope is a "skill at which city or village managers must become expert in order to survive."
He hadn't been able to walk that wildly vibrating tightrope in Champaign, especially after 18-year-olds won the right to vote, voters adopted a hybrid city council system in 1972 with council members elected both at-large and by district (previously having been chosen only at-large), and a much different city council was elected in 1973. Among the members of that historic council class of 1973 were Joan Severns, John Lee Johnson, Mary Pollock, Ken Dugan and Lynn Sweet, none of whom, Pollock later noted, were "the country club types."
"With the students voting," Browning told the Sun-Times, "we got a different type of people on the city council. One woman council member (whom he didn't name but it was Pollock) seemed to spend all her time worrying about more civil rights for homosexuals. That's probably important, but it wasn't the highest item on my priority list."
And he told The News-Gazette on the day he resigned, "Some members of the current city council have an entirely different concept of what a city government should and should not be than I have."
One point of contention between Browning and his council was affirmative action.
"I don't think a governmental entity of our size is going to have any major impact on the employment practices in the community," he said, a stunning indication of just how much the world has changed in 40 years (as well as the newspaper photos of Browning dragging on a cigarette during public meetings). "If affirmative action is going to produce the desired results, it's going to have to be done on a statewide level, if not a federal level."
Ken Dugan, who served about six years on the city council before moving to Pesotum where he still lives, recalled Browning as "pretty arrogant. I didn't see eye to eye with him."
The new council members and Browning didn't hit it off, Dugan said.
"We opposed some of the directions he was going and didn't give him the free rein he had had prior to that. I think that was one of the big reasons he left," Dugan said, admitting though that "I don't remember quite as well as I used to. That was a long time ago."
Dan McCollum, who about nine years after Browning left was elected to the city council and later became mayor, said he has mostly good memories of the late city manager.
"I liked Warren. But I knew him later, after he had become mayor of Centralia" where he served one term, after being the city manager. "I think he having been at Champaign, was a bit closer to me than he normally would have been," McCollum said.
He said he believed Browning "was probably a bit on the authoritative side. But that being said, Warren served here a long damn time for a city manager."
In fact, despite the abrupt ending to his career in Champaign, Browning survived all kinds of crises in Champaign: an outrageous police department scandal in which officers were accused of stealing from businesses, antiwar riots on the University of Illinois campus, racial unrest in the city, a major urban renewal initiative, the mysterious disappearance of $20,000 in city funds and a number of lesser scandals and controversies.
Browning's tenure as city manager was bookended by Robert Oldland (Champaign's first, who last four years) and Gene Miller, who lasted 10 years.
Next up was Steve Carter, who served a remarkable 28 years, retiring about 10 months ago. He was replaced by Dorothy David, only the city's fifth manager in 56 years
"City managers — and I'm going to except Steve Carter — often take on a lead role in operating the city," said McCollum. "That includes what is supposed to be the council's prerogative, determining policy. I am sure that part of (Browning's downfall) was the cleavage with the change in the city council. Sometimes it's just a matter of where if you don't get good policy direction from the mayor and city council, somebody's got to do it."
In that respect Carter was exceptional, McCollum said.
"Steve Carter had a level of civility that is pretty unimaginable. He also is very intelligent, which is not to say that Miller and Browning were not," McCollum said. "But the integration between civility and intelligence and a real sincere effort to do what the council wanted — if they would take the time to tell him — that was Steve Carter.
"On the other hand Gene Miller couldn't — and I think the same thing could be said with Warren Browning and the change in the city council — he just couldn't get out of the habit of being in charge."
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.