What kinds of people are City Managers?

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.

City Manager Education: Masters in Public Administration 39% Other Masters or PhD	26% Bachelors 24% Some College 9% High School 2.5% Position Prior to City Manager: Assistant City Manager 33% Director of a City Department 16.8% Private Sector 11% State or Federal Employee 2.6% Elected Official Staff 2.6% Other 33.9%

(~2,000 of 8,856 municipalities and counties responding)

Another survey is about contracts and compensation, with 46% of all City/County Managers reporting:

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.”

Here is a follow-up about City Manager recruitment and what I would like to see in a recruitment process. See you then!


2 thoughts on “What kinds of people are City Managers?

  1. Experience elsewhere suggests a good City Manager has a strategic (long range) vision, which he or she imparts to the City Council and the City.

    Regards  —  Cliff

    • It’s interesting. The concepts and guidance behind council-manager is that manager deals with day-to-day and council deals with goal setting. However, I’ve seen almost the opposite in Lowell. Council has to be responsive to constituents, so they are often involved with short term (potholes and double poles) actions. Meanwhile, the City Manager is outside the two-year election cycle and can think long-term. I’ve only lived in one other council-manager city, Champaign, IL. There, the council did annual updates to a five-year strategic plan. They’ve stated benefits such as “A better understanding by citizens and staff of the City Council’s plans for the future of the City,” and “City Council and staff are less inclined to be side-tracked by less important activities or projects.” But of course, they were also keenly aware of the election cycle.

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