An Engaged City Manager Recruitment Process

Yesterday, we posted about the Manager-Council form of government and the typical background of City Managers. Today, we’re looking at the City Manager recruitment process. Pundits consider State Senator Eileen Donoghue, State Representatives Kevin Murphy and Tom Golden, and former City Councilor and current Vice President at MassDevelopment George Ramirez as “top runners” for the position (See Lowell Live Feed here and here). However, nobody will know who has applied until the application period closes February 28th and the City Council determines how to proceed.

What do professional associations recommend?

MMMAInternational City County Managers AssociationIn the last post, I mentioned the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA). ICMA and the commonwealth-focused Massachusetts Municipal Management Association (MMMA) give guidance on manager recruitment. ICMA recommends acting “thoughtfully and deliberately,” giving at least 60 days before an application deadline, 30 days to interview candidates, and 30 days to let an administrator relocate. Lowell’s application period is open only 36 days, but the City’s proposed schedule otherwise fits within those guidelines. Because of the long timeline, both MMMA and ICMA recommend appointing an interim administrator when faced with an unexpected vacancy—perhaps a qualified internal candidate or a retired or between-jobs City Manager.

Lowell’s City Council may follow this route. According to the Lowell Sun, Mayor Elliott said, “If there is a need to, we have to put somebody in place until a new manager comes on board.” The Sun contacted a “name making the rounds” for the position, Robert Healy, who said he would be open to acting as an interim City Manager if need be (2006 Sun story about Mr. Healy’s history here).

Most professionals recommend delaying major initiatives and leaving executive leadership positions vacant during transitions, and ICMA suggests the ability for a new CM to “build a team” can be a recruitment tool. City Manager Lynch has stated he will not fill Lowell’s vacant Chief Financial Officer position, and Director of Planning and Development Adam Baacke will leave at about the same time as Mr. Lynch. ICMA cautions against public quarrels with the outgoing City Manager and “overcompensating” by selecting a new manager based solely on the qualities they were dissatisfied about the old.

City Manager Boston Globe ad

City Manager Boston Globe ad (richardhowe.com)

Many city councils hire an outside firm to assist with recruitment, while others, like Lowell, cooperate with existing HR staff. ICMA suggests the council consult with all department directors to develop lists of necessary “hard” and “soft” skills. Occasionally, a council will also engage with the public to develop a profile. The best results come from ads on professional websites (such as ICMA, MMMA, the National League of Cities, or MA Municipal Association) rather than print newspapers. Finally, ICMA suggests that a city council, cooperations with HR staff, should send letters to qualified people identified by the outgoing manager, other city administrators, universities, or other knowledgeable sources.

Lowell’s ad went to the ICMA, Massachusetts Municipal Association, Lowell Sun (this includes Monster.com), Boston Globe (this also includes Monster.com), and the city’s website.

Common criteria for selection

I’ve seen recommendations to narrow the pool of applicants to as low as five and as many as fifteen finalists, with interviews either in open or executive sessions for each candidate. MMMA has a list of suggestions for screening criteria:

  • Experience working with a government of comparable size providing comparable services
  • Experience working in a similar geographic area, either rural or urban
  • Accomplishments that line up with goals of the community
  • Supervisory/managerial experience
  • Employment history and salary considerations
  • History of continuing professional development, including active membership in ICMA, MMMA, or a similar organization, and being a Credentialed Manager

Very often, councils pursue a second round of interviews. Sometimes, they engage the community or city staff in one or both interviews. Finally, ICMA recommends that the City carefully choose a frontrunner on which they can reach consensus and a unanimous vote.

What are Lowellians looking for in a City Manager?

I would like to suggest a few ideas and thoughts to continue the community conversation:

  • At the end of the special meeting on January 15, Councilor Mercier said “I’m just requesting public participation,” and Councilor Samaras added, “I think we should have a process that would allow them to come before us to talk about what are the issues that concern them, what are they looking for in the next City Manager?” I agree with these sentiments, and may suggest “listening sessions” similar to the sessions that City Manager Lynch conducted when selecting a new police superintendent. These sessions can target both the general public and specific groups.
  • I would like to see qualified applicants be able to identify strategies to advance the goals and tackle specific action items identified in Lowell’s comprehensive plan, Sustainable Lowell 2025.
  • I think it is less important that a candidate is from Greater Lowell, and more important that he or she has experience in cities of similar makeup: Mid-sized, postindustrial cities that are pieces of larger regional corridors. Cities with a tourism market, creative economy potential, and diverse and hard-to-reach populations. That said, there are advantages that someone from the area will have over someone unfamiliar with Merrimack Valley laws, customs, and traditions.
  • I would like to see applicants have experience negotiating and building relationships with unions and having demonstrated fair and sustainable compensation agreements. ICMA suggests that before a final hire, the City Council should visit the candidate’s community and speak with staff that worked with him or her. I may support this if allowed under Massachusetts law.
  • I hope the City Council and HR department work together to reach out to University alumni lists, professional networks, and other sources to encourage a diverse pool of applicants.

I hope interested citizens can continue this discussion in the comments, on Facebook, or over coffee. Understandably, many are worried about finding a City Manager as quickly as possible. However, we have until February 28th to articulate to the council what we would like to see.

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2 thoughts on “An Engaged City Manager Recruitment Process

  1. Very thoughtful piece on the subject. I would especially agree with your comment to “be able to identify strategies to advance the goals and tackle specific action items identified in Lowell’s comprehensive plan.” Since city councils and city managers have a finite life of effectivity, building upon a strategic plan is critical to keep the city moving in a desired direction over the long term.

  2. Pingback: Week in Review: February 2, 2014 | richardhowe.com

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