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City Manager-City Council Relationship; Part Three

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

By James Bourey
October 17, 2022

This is the third part in a series of columns about the city manager-city council relationship. As in the first two, this column contains some material from my book, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager (Bourey, 2021). This column will focus on the interpersonal relationship between the manager and the council as well as how politics relates to the manager’s recommendations.

Council/staff relationships

In a council-manager form of government, the manager is responsible for the hiring and supervision of all staff aside from some council appointments such as the city attorney and city clerk. The council’s point of control is the manager, who is accountable to the council for running the government efficiently and effectively. Directives from the council are to the manager, not to the staff. However, in practice, there often needs to be direct communication between the staff and the council or an individual council member for the purpose of providing information. The manager cannot know everything about all issues facing the city. Unfortunately, some council members take communication beyond obtaining information and seek to direct the staff. This may not always be intentional but it is often not an innocent mistake.

Managers need to handle council members going to staff delicately, but they need to address it and not let the council direct staff. First, managers need to have an upfront discussion with all council members about responsibilities and obtain a common understanding. Managers should make it clear that conversations with staff are fine and asking for information is appropriate but that giving directions to staff to do work or take certain positions is not ok. Managers also need to make it clear to staff that they are to follow this process as well. Staff needs to tell council members who cross this line that they need to take it up with the manager. Then, the staff needs to tell the manager about the council member’s request. This can be intimidating for staff, but if staff follows this procedure it can save a great deal of grief for the manager.

Another major dilemma for managers is when council members are excessively critical of staff.  Managers need to deal directly with council members about this abusive behavior. They need to make it clear that it is the manager’s responsibility to deal with staff and that council members need to take up any issues they have with the staff performance with the manager.

Similarly, staff must not go directly to the council with recommendations without the manager’s concurrence. Staff needs to understand that it is the manager’s responsibility to make recommendations and whether or not the staff agrees with the manager, his or her word is final. They cannot go around the manager to make a different recommendation to the council.

Politics and manager recommendations

One of the distinct benefits of having a city manager as a chief executive is that recommendations are not driven by politics. However, if a manager frequently makes recommendations that are politically difficult for his or her council, the manager is going to have an unhappy council. Managers need to make recommendations based on what is best for the city but those recommendations must be grounded in political reality.

Of course, there will be times when managers need to make recommendations for the good of the city that will not sit well with some members of the public. In these instances, the manager needs to be prepared to absorb the wrath of some citizens. Some managers may not have the fortitude to make those tough recommendations, not only due to the potential public backlash but also for fear of losing their job. Managers must decide what they are willing to risk for the good of the community. I have had to make some tough recommendations which I believe affected my longevity with the city, but I feel they were the right call. I like to think I was guided by the premise of just doing what is right. 

Another challenge that politics introduces is the finite term of a council member. While even four-year terms are a challenge, two-year terms can be much more so. In addition, the terms of council members are usually staggered so that, even with four-year terms, some council members are running for re-election every two years. The finite nature of terms of office tends to make council members more concerned about the immediate impact of their decision and not as concerned with the long-term effect of a council’s actions. 

Managers must do their part to show long-term benefits. One of the tools that I found most helpful is a long-range financial forecast. In all my management positions, I worked with staff to develop a five-year financial forecast and reviewed that in depth with the council in a day-long work session. This resulted in the council making decisions that they never would have made based on a shorter time horizon.

The next column will be the final in this series.

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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