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The City Manager-City Council Relationship: Part One

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

By James Bourey
August 15, 2022

During 37 years of local government service, I worked for cities and counties with forms of government that covered the entire spectrum. This included Mayor-Council (Strong Mayor), City Commission and Council-Manager forms. Based on my experience, I am convinced that having a professionally trained public administrator as the chief executive is the most advantageous for an organization. While I believe that the Council-Manager is the best form, it is not without its challenges. The quality of the elected officials is always extremely important. Organizations can overcome some of the challenges of an untrained elected executive with outstanding leaders. And council-manager cities can be just as dysfunctional as any with poor elected officials and less than professional managers.

In an ideal environment, the council and manager carrying out their roles and responsibilities can provide a very effective operation. However, there are many challenges in this relationship.  This is the first column in a series about the council/manager relationship. These columns borrow heavily from my first book, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager (Bourey, 2021). These will not be a primer such as one would get from a Master of Public Administration class, but rather provide practical advice from a long-time practitioner. I don’t claim that I always got the relationship with the council right but I did learn a lot in the process of trying my best to serve the community. This column will cover the first two of the following topics:

  • Policy Making
  • Negative effect of a single council member
  • Following the council’s lead
  • Council/staff interpersonal relationships
  • Politics and manager recommendations
  • Public visibility of the council and the manager
  • Challenge of a divided council
  • Manager as a change agent

Policy making

In the council-manager form of government, the most basic tenant is that it is the council’s role to establish policy and the manager’s responsibility to carry out the council’s policy directives. From a practical perspective, this greatly understates the role which the manager must play in helping to develop policy recommendations. While councils are indeed the adopter ofpolicies, the manager and his/her staff is most always the developer of the policies. The challenge for the manager is to develop policies with input from the council and to obtain a sense of ownership from the council members. It is also critical for the manager to be in sync with the majority of the council. When the council and manager are operating in tandem with one another, it can certainly feel and appear like a smooth operation. I have always believed in tracking performance. When I was the City Manager of Greenville, South Carolina, I tracked the success rate of the approval of our recommendations to the council. They were technically my recommendations but, of course, they were mostly developed by the staff. Consistently, each year the rate of acceptance of our recommendations exceeded 99 percent. So, the council and staff had a very high level of agreement. Of course, the council bristled a bit when the press said they were just a rubber stamp for the manager’s recommendations. That was really a no-win proposition. 

As a who manager, along with appropriate staff, develops recommendations for council action, things can go sideways. Managers can sometimes bring forward recommendations that the full council agrees with but an individual council member may object to. That individual council member may feel that the manager is exceeding his or her authority in advocating for policies that they disagree with. This can be exacerbated because the manager has access to most of the critical information and the individual council member can feel outgunned.

The manager can help to avoid this by articulating alternative positions to their recommendations and describing the benefits of each alternative. Of course, any opposing council member may still feel the manager is biased against their position even if the manager has presented complete information in an even-handed fashion. A manager can help to avoid this if they work on the individual relationship with each council member prior to such issues coming up. Finding common ground with council members can be critically important.  

Negative effect of a single council member

While it is the full council that decides on the hiring and firing of the city manager, if only one council member is unhappy with the manager, it can create a major problem. This can ultimately lead to a manager being removed. When one dissident council member continually criticizes the manager, he or she may start to convince others of problems with the manager’s performance. That council member can also use any unhappy staff to undermine the manager. Even if other council members do not agree with the dissatisfaction of the unhappy council member, some may go along just to remove the dissent from the council dynamic. Some may just go along to get along.

Future columns will take up the other dimensions listed previously. 

Can anyone figure out what city council chambers the image is from? Hint, it is not a US city.

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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