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The City Manager-City Council Relationship—Part Two

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

By James Bourey
September 12, 202

The City Manager-City Council Relationship—Part Two

This is the second part of a series of columns about the city manager-city council relationship. These columns borrow heavily from my book, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager (Bourey, 2021). This column will discuss council decision-making, communication with the council and how the manager takes the lead from the council.

Council decision making

The fact that the decision-making authority of the council is through the entire body and the individual council member has no authority can be frustrating for members. Even though this should be quite evident by a cursory look at a council member’s responsibilities, this is often a surprise to many new members. This can be not only a source of frustration for them but also a source of challenge for the city manager. Elected members often feel like they were selected by their constituents to make certain changes and, quite naturally, want those changes to take place. If the full council is not in agreement and the manager is not willing to champion their positions, the council member can become quite dissatisfied. Even though, it is the council that is the roadblock, the council member often takes their frustration out on the manager.  

Managers must always follow the directions of the full council. They must beware of individual requests in council meetings or in private. If a council member asks for some information and it will not change the staff work driven by the council directives, certainly comply. However, if the request is to establish a policy directive, it is best to ask the full council if they concur and get their decision on the record. If something is not approved by the entire council or is not clear, it can certainly come back to haunt the manager. So many times I have heard from a council member that we asked you to do something when it was a simple comment from a single member.

Notwithstanding the need to follow the directives of the full council discussed above, it is vital to positively relate to each council member as an individual. The manager needs to respond to their personal interests and understand how they like to receive and process information. I have had council members that have trouble processing information in written form and need an oral presentation. In one instance, they needed to even have a conversation to understand the reasons for certain recommendations.   

Communication with the council

To many council members, information is power. Individual members may seek to know more about an issue than their fellow members in order to better support their position against members who may oppose their view. Council members with differing levels of knowledge on an issue can be a real danger to the manager. This is true even if it is because a council member is more knowledgeable because they do their homework and review information provided to them. In order to be fully supportive of a council, managers must communicate with the whole council as well as individual council members, sharing information equally yet also responding to individual council member requests for information. If a request involves a council issue, the manager should also share it with the entire council, especially if it is for an item on the agenda. Information is indeed powerful and you cannot empower one council member over others.

Because council members may differ in how they like to receive information, managers need to communicate informally and formally. They need to communicate through oral and written means. Emails are great for giving timely information and texts can be as well. If there is a really sensitive or time-critical issue CALL the council members individually. Leave them a voice mail message or text if you cannot reach them. If council members first learn about a major issue or problem in the city through the media, it can be potentially fatal to a manager.

A manager follows the council’s lead

Often a council member is elected on a platform that there should be a change in the direction of the city. In many of these instances, the newly elected council member may believe that the existing manager will not implement the changes that they feel need to be made. They attribute the previous direction as the position of the manager, not what the previous council had taken. They fail to understand that the manager follows the directives of the council and that the same manager can implement different policies that are directed by a different council. The newly elected council member sometimes feels that they need a new manager to follow new directions. An existing manager is especially at risk when a council majority is changed in a single election but the same problem can occur when the council majority is changed over time. Even if there is little new direction desired, new council members may feel that they just want “their person.”

As in the last column, can anyone figure out what this additional city council chambers the image is from?

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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