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Should a City Manager Push the Envelope— Caretaker or Leader?

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

By James Bourey
February 17, 2023

We all know that the traditional literature on the role of a city manager says that they implement the policies of the city council. Most also realize that in practice, the managers’ role goes well beyond just implementation of policies. Policies do not spring from whole cloth from the minds of council members. Most all policies, directions and programs originate largely from staff work. Yes, from time to time, council members will have ideas or concepts they request the manager to pursue, but even then the staff will work to develop those ideas. The literature on the role of the city manager has indeed expanded to recognize this dynamic.

Even with this evolving concept of the manager’s role, there is a wide spectrum of views on how much the manager should generate and develop initiatives for the city council to consider. Certainly, managers should not work on initiatives which are clearly at odds with the general tenor and philosophy of the majority of the council. However, managers could interpret the general direction of the council and develop initiatives to reflect their predispositions. For instance, a manager could understand the general concern the council has with the state of the economy in the city and develop a relatively aggressive effort to promote economic activity.

The level of activism of a manager could be taken a step further. Managers have at their disposal a great deal of information and can identify problems and issues that they believe should be addressed for the benefit of residents. For instance, a manager might identify a downward trend in employment in the city and bring some ideas to the city council to address a need to create more jobs for residents.

Clearly, some managers are more aggressive than others in generating programs and ideas. Some see their role as caretakers and are reluctant to initiate policies and programs without a specific and explicit mandate from the council. Others, feel an obligation to the community to bring ideas and initiatives to the council without specific direction. This column is not intended to advocate for the ideal place for a manager along this spectrum. Situations differ greatly from place to place. Some councils want and expect the manager to be aggressive in coming to them with ideas and suggestions, other councils do not see that as the manager’s role. 

At this point, in the interest of full disclosure, I feel the need to say that I generally  played an activist role in my manager positions. From my perspective, this provided significant benefits for the community and led to much being accomplished. However, it also led to a greater personal risk. While a majority of the council may agree with the initiatives, a minority may not. Even where a council may specifically request a manager to be aggressive in suggesting new programs, there is risk. Council members can change with elections and the new council members may not agree with the initiatives or want an active manager. In addition, while council members may direct the manager to be aggressive with ideas and suggestions, they may feel they are being upstaged. In one of my city manager positions, the media contributed to this by editorializing that the council was just a rubber stamp for what the manager proposed. Granted, the council did approve virtually every item I brought to them, but I believe that was because I was in close sync with what they wanted based on intensive discussions at retreats and with individual council members.

How much a manager should take the initiative and push for certain actions needs to be a personal choice. The “leading edge’ can become the “bleeding edge” for a manager. While I generally was an activist manager, I tried to be in touch as much as possible with the council and understand their desires for the community. I believe that my active role led to my departure in a couple of communities. However, I have always felt that I would rather have accomplished a great deal in a number of years with a city than spend my entire career in one location without as much progress being made.

Certainly, there are some communities where a manager can take the initiative, the city can make much progress and the manager can have excellent longevity. And there are places where managers have been fired for not taking the initiative and suggesting ideas and programs. However, these do seem to be the exception and are not prevalent.

Ideally, city councils would seek out the type of manager they want and select someone that closely meets their desire to be more or less active in suggesting ideas and actions. And managers would be selective in choosing communities where they work, aligning themselves with councils that share the same idea of the manager’s role. Of course, councils can say they want an activist manager yet not fully understand what that means and be unhappy when they get it. Indeed, no one said a city manager’s job was easy!  

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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