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City Managers and Politics: How to Stay Neutral

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

By Roger L. Kemp
September 19, 2014

Kemp septEarly in my city management career, a councilperson said that he thought that I was a “liberal,” since I seemed overly concerned about certain segments of the public in the policy-setting process when I made staff recommendations. Later in my career, another councilperson said that he had heard that I was a “conservative” and this is why all of my staff recommendations were fiscally conservative in nature. These were comments made by elected officials on governing bodies that hired me by majority-vote to serve as the city manager of their community.

Later in my city management career (more like by my mid-career) I got tired of elected officials trying to politically categorize me because of my personal political party affiliations over the years. After all, I was their hired city management professional and my staff recommendations had nothing to do with my personal partisan political party affiliations. I only made professionally responsible and politically neutral staff recommendations.

During my mid-career as a city manager, I changed my personal political party affiliation to be an “unaffiliated” voter. I did not professionally care what political party a mayor or council member belonged to since they were all my bosses, collectively speaking. Each one of them received a majority vote, either at-large or in a district, and they individually and collectively “held the trust” of the people that they represented. Their personal election was a result of our nation’s democratic election process, which elects public officials at all levels of government (i.e., municipal, county, state and federal).

I’ve worked in both liberal communities and conservative communities. I never sought out or preferred one political type of a community to the other. I liked one community where council members ran for office and the political party they belonged to was not even on the ballot (out West). Later on, in another city, every candidate for office had their party affiliation listed after their name on the ballot (back East). Out West when council members were elected to office, I didn’t know their personal political party affiliation nor did I personally or professionally care. Back East, I knew of every candidate’s political party affiliation, since it was on the ballot.

I would always tell elected officials, primarily mayors and city council members, they collectively hired me and that I worked for them. All of my recommendations were professional in nature and there was no politics involved in the recommendation process. I also told them that I did not care about their political party or affiliation. The people elected them all and they all held the trust of the people in the area that they were elected to represent. Regardless of their personal party affiliation, they were all my bosses, collectively speaking.

This is the professional role of a city manager. City managers should be politically neutral and tell elected officials wherever they work that all of their recommendations are always professional in nature. After all, the folks elected by majority vote hold the trust of the people, they are collectively your boss and they should be treated with equal respect by their professional management staff.

I have also worked in cities where you see, at election time, signs for political candidates along party lines. All of the Democrats (D’s) are listed on some political signs and all of the Republicans (R’s) are listed on other political signs. Each party wants you to vote for “their” party’s endorsed political candidates. In the real world, it is a politically mixed group of candidates that usually are elected. As a city manager, the elected officials are collectively your boss regardless of their respective personal political party affiliations.

I’ve known some city managers that were a “D,” they only wanted to work in liberal communities and some who were an “R,” and they only wanted to work in conservative communities. I always had twice as many jobs to apply for than they did, since I did not care which party the elected officials belonged to and I told them this during the job interview process. This is the political role of a true city management professional.

At the end of job interviews, when I was allowed to make a comment, I would explain this philosophy. I’d also always tell them “doing the right thing meant more than my job” – professionally speaking.

Lastly, I would also say that I applied for this job because I liked their community; I felt that I could help them improve it, both fiscally and operationally and welcomed the opportunity to work for/with them during the coming years as their city manager.

I was usually one of the “top three” candidates that applied for the city manager position during a city’s respective recruitment, selection and hiring process. On average, I would get a job offer for one of the three city manager positions that I applied for since I usually wound-up as one of their “top three” candidates during their respective city manager selection processes!

My public service career started when I was appointed as an assistant to the city manager in the City of Oakland, one of the largest cities with the council-manager form of government in the State of California. I was later the city manager for the City of Clifton, the largest city with the council-manager form of government in State of New Jersey. I also served as the city manager of the City of Meriden, the largest city with the council-manager form of government in State of Connecticut.

Author: Roger Kemp, Ph.D., is a member of ICMA, GFOA and ASPA. He is past-president of the State Chapters of ASPA and ICMA in the states of California and Connecticut. He served as a city manager during his public service career. He is now a practitioner in residence, Department of Public Management at the University of New Haven. Kemp is also a Distinguished Adjunct Professor, Executive MPA Program at Golden Gate University. He can be reached at <[email protected]>.

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