With five senior city administrators resigned or soon to resign, including City Manager Bernie Lynch, it is a time of transition in Lowell (Read more at Richardhowe.com’s Week in Review). Lowell will accept applications for the City Manager position until February 28th. With many names being discussed as potential City Managers, it might be good to “take a step back” for those not up-to-speed. Those unfamiliar with Lowell’s government might not understand the roles of the council and the city manager, but the division is not unique to Lowell. In fact, “Council-Manager” is the most common form of local government in the US: about half of towns and cities with populations more than 3,500 use it.
In Council-Manager, residents vote for a council. The council sets policy and long-term goals for the community. Additionally, the council appoints an apolitical, professional manager that acts as the executive officer, managing the city day-to-day—much like shareholders in a company vote for a Board of Directors, who select a CEO to manage that company. A mayor may be elected by the council, such as in Lowell, or directly by voters. That mayor, however, has limited executive power—that power is in the City Manager’s hands. The Massachusetts General Laws for Lowell’s type of Government, “Plan E,” lay this out clearly:
Chapter 43, Section 103: The city council shall appoint a city manager who shall be sworn to the faithful performance of his duties and who shall be the chief administrative officer of the city and shall be responsible for the administration of all departments, commissions, boards and officers of the city… He shall be appointed on the basis of his administrative and executive qualifications only, and need not be a resident of the city or commonwealth when appointed…
Section 107: …neither the city council nor any member thereof shall give orders to any subordinate of the city manager either publicly or privately.
Section 104 lays out duties including administration supervision; ensuring laws, ordinances, and resolutions are executed; making recommendations; reports on the affairs, financial condition, and future needs of the city; and acting as “chief conservator of the peace within the city.”
Council-manager government started to become popular in the late 19th and early 20th century as a reaction against corruption. This seems to be the motivation in the switch to Council-Manager in 1940s Lowell. Council-manager also has roots in the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor, who advocated a scientific, objective approach to managing organizations. A theory behind Council-Manager is that a professional City Manager can make a City more efficient and equitable than an elected mayor. Studies suggest that cost efficiency outcomes are roughly the same, but others argue that City Managers are more successful in long-term economic development planning. (Links to academic studies.)
Most of the above information is available from the International City/County Managers Association, a professional association of City Managers with 9,000+ members. They constantly undertake and analyze surveys to assist City Managers with best practices. According to 2012 surveys:
- Average time in current position: 7.3 years
- Average amount of government management experience: 20 years
- When City Managers are fired or feel pressure to resign, 36% of the time, it is because of a “personality conflict” with the Mayor.
(~2,000 of 8,856 municipalities and counties responding)
Another survey is about contracts and compensation, with 46% of all City/County Managers reporting:
- 81% of City Managers have a contract, generally voted on in an open session of their council.
- Median pay is $103,000, but this of course includes many managers of small villages in low cost-of-living areas. The most a City Manager received was $368,282. Notably, Cambridge paid its former City Manager, Robert Healy, $330,000. That said, Cambridge is very successful.
Here’s an earlier post about City Manager contracts in Massachusetts cities with a “Plan E” government like Lowell’s. Note that City Manager Lynch’s compensation is about $180,000, and the ad lists the future City Manager’s salary as “negotiable.”