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City Manager-City Council Relationship; Part Four

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By James Bourey
November 14, 2022

This is the final in a four-part series about the city manager-city council relationship. All these columns have borrowed from information that is in my book, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of City/County Manager (Bourey, 2021). This column will examine the public visibility of the council and the manager, the challenge presented by a divided council, the emotionally intelligent city manager and the manager as a change agent.

Public Visibility of the Council and the Manager

Council members are elected by the citizens and have a special relationship with their constituents. It is important for the manager to defer to the council in providing leadership for the community and taking credit for the city’s accomplishments. Hopefully, the council will appropriately recognize the work of the city manager and staff. However, while it is critical for the manager to defer to the council in settings when they are present, I believe, it is also important for the manager to have a role with the public. The public wants to know who their city manager is and what sort of person he or she is as well as, most importantly, have a measure of confidence in his or her competency and understanding of their interests. It is crucial for the manager to have a sense of the concerns and views of the citizens in the community. So, while not upstaging the council, the manager must have a reasonable community profile.

When I was interviewing for the city manager in a city where I ultimately was the manager for more than six years, the city council told me that they wanted the manager to have a high public profile and be a community leader. They reiterated this request when I was selected. Over the next many years, I followed their direction and became very well known in the community. Unfortunately, most of the council turned over during my tenure and some of the new council members were jealous of my standing in the community.

The challenge of a divided council

With all five of the local government chief executive positions I held (two cities, two counties and a regional council of governments) I was the unanimous selection of the council. This was more than just formal votes but did represent the support of all council members. However, while all wanted me as their manager, it did not mean that they agreed with one another on all issues. In each situation, I ended up with councils that were significantly divided in their views on some very important concerns. In cases like these, the manager can get stuck in between the differing points of view and one side can feel like the manager is supporting the positions of the council members with opposing views. If the council is divided, it is critical for the manager to go out of his or her way to show that they are impartial. This is easier said than done but vital to the manager’s longevity.

The emotionally intelligent city manager

To paraphrase the title of an old television show, “Council members say the darndest things.” Early on in my local government career, I was especially challenged when a council member would make a statement that was totally off the wall and sometimes so ridiculous that it was even humorous. Council members generally have very little training for their positions and it is not uncommon for them to make statements that are cringeworthy. However, council members are duly elected by the residents to govern the city. They deserve to be treated with respect. It is vital for the manager not to show any negative reaction to statements that council members may make. I really had to work on my poker face and show the utmost respect to the council. Managers must be highly emotionally intelligent, especially when interacting with council members. They may not be knowledgeable about all issues but managers need to respond with deference and courtesy in all situations to council members.    

The manager as a change agent

Often when a city or county manager assumes a new position, the council provides a directive to change certain aspects of the way the city/county operates. They may not even know exactly what they want to be change but they want the manager to push for altering the status quo. This frequently draws a negative reaction from some staff members who are reluctant to change. Council members may have “buyer’s remorse” when staff members complain to them about the manager’s actions. Despite the fact that the manager is only following the directions of the council, they may get caught in this negative reaction to change. To avoid this, a manager needs to keep the council well-informed of the changes he or she is making and seek concurrence on a regular basis. The manager must also let the council know about any potential negative staff reaction. 

This final column wraps up a series of four columns about the city manager-city council relationship intended to provide practical advice on managing this important relationship.  

Author: James Bourey served local government for 37 years, including as a city and county manager and regional council executive director. He also worked as a consultant to local government for another six years. He is the author of numerous professional articles as well as the books, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager and A Guidebook for City and County Managers: Meeting Today’s Challenges.

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