You say you want an evolution
A couple of years ago, Dave Mora needed a police chief. As city manager for Salinas, Calif., home to 130,000 people, Mora had all the responsibility and power to make the decision.
After reviewing numerous resumes and conducting dozens of interviews, Mora had made his choice. Did he hire right away? Not a chance. Not before he had arranged for the top cop candidate to meet individually with the mayor and each of the six city council members.
“I made sure the council was part of the process,” says Mora, who has served as Salinas’ city manager for nine years. “When I first started in this business (in 1974), that wasn’t done.”
It still is not done in some communities, where friction between elected and appointed officials is a tradition that perseveres. Other communities, however, have overcome the historical conflicts and proven to be models of council-manager (or commission-manager) cooperation.
Most are in good shape
By and large, council-manager relationships are mutually beneficial, says Jim Svara, political science professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Svara has studied local government for 15 years, and, in four studies of managers and council members, he has found that most participants report stable levels of interaction within their communities.
However, with 2,900 council-manager governments nationwide, there are many reasons why some of those relationships break down. According to Svara, cities and counties with chronically strained relations between their managers and councils usually have something in common: an intensely partisan council. Without unity on the council, the manager is forced to try to please two, three or more factions, he explains.
Of course, the manager often can be blamed for disharmony. In his most memorable mistake, Mora – then manager of Los Gatos, Calif. – turned a practical decision into a bureaucratic one, prompting objections from the public and, in turn, the council.
It happened when Los Gatos residents requested a four-way stop. When the request was made, Mora instructed the public works department to conduct an engineering study, the results of which showed that there was not sufficient traffic to warrant a stop sign. Based on those results, Mora denied the installation. “I gave them a traditional bureaucratic response,” he recalls, and an uproar ensued. The rookie manager soon realized that, if the community wants a stop sign, it should get one.
Regardless of their origin, divisions in the council-manager relationship can limit accomplishment in all areas of the community. To overcome those divisions, the manager must learn to communicate with the council so that the council, in turn, can provide meaningful assistance in planning and goal-setting, and in building and maintaining project support.
Working on the same page
Lynchburg, Va., is one of the oldest council-manager cities, and it has a history of solid relationships between its elected and appointed officials. Since adopting the council-manager form of government in 1923, the city has had only six managers.
As city manager for the last eight years, Charles Church has carried on that tradition, participating in the council’s preparation of a “vision statement.” Called the “Lynchburg City Council Governance Model and Guidance System,” the model details the council’s expectations for Church and his administration. “Having a vision and a common understanding of what we want the community to look like is a unifying thing,” Church says.
Lynchburg’s council has seven members (four elected from geographic wards, and three elected at large) who are elected in odd years. Following each election, Church meets with the new council, and each participant outlines his 20-year vision for the city. Each member of the group offers his or her input, and the consensus is recorded graphically, in a triangle. (See the table on page 30).
The model ensures that everyone is working on the same page, Church says. The council members and manager know the city’s goals; the manager and his staff know their roles in achieving the goals; and everyone knows the values to be employed in reaching those goals. Furthermore, to be successful, the model requires regular communication between all parties, Church says.
While joint creation of a mission statement can open communication early in the council-manager relationship, regular reviews can help ensure that the door stays open. It also can help all parties stay on course, and it presents an opportunity for group members to evaluate their effectiveness in working together.
George Caravalho has been city manager for Santa Clarita, Calif., since 1988 (the city was incorporated in 1987). He believes that the annual review process is critical in getting feedback from the council and in recognizing where staff resources can best be used each year.
However, getting candid feedback can be difficult. In order for a review to be useful, council members must be frank in their assessments, regardless of whether they are offering criticism or praise. “That is not something many council members like to do,” Caravalho notes.
To make it easier for council members to be candid in their remarks, Santa Clarita hires a consultant to assist in the council-manager review process. (The city pays $3,000- $5,000 per year for the service.) The consultant meets individually with Caravalho and each of the five council members, allowing for free discussion of the manager’s work and that of the council members.
The consultant produces a detailed report that the council reviews in a closed-door meeting. Caravalho attends the meeting to view the report and to receive feedback from the council. “All I do is take notes. Sometimes I don’t talk for an hour,” he says.
In the end, the council uses the third-party review and subsequent discussion as the basis for Caravalho’s performance review, but the process has other significant benefits. For example, Caravalho says it provides him with insight into the needs and expectations of each council member, giving him the means to forestall the mistrust that plagues some council-manager relationships. “At the core of what you’re talking about is trust and confidence,” he says. Finally, all parties get a third-party assessment of their performance as a group, and that information has proven invaluable in goal-setting and planning.
Including and updating
The sort of communication exhibited in Lynchburg and Santa Clarita – characterized by inclusion, exchange and feedback – is equally important when councils and managers are faced with the unforeseen. Populations and community needs are changing at a rapid pace, and open communication is imperative if councils and managers are to meet the demands.
In 1970, when Marty Vanacour was assistant city manager for Glendale, Ariz., his community was a small suburb of Phoenix. Since then, Glendale’s population has grown from 30,000 to more than 200,000, placing it 100th among the nation’s largest cities. Additionally, census data shows that the Phoenix metropolitan area has 2.8 million people, compared to 1.6 million in 1980. “I’ve seen some really dynamic changes,” says Vanacour, who has served as Glendale’s manager since 1984.
With so much change, Vanacour’s job – including his interaction with the council – has expanded. He plays an assisting role in policy-making; the council is involved with his office on a day-to-day basis; and, together, they are representing Glendale on a growing number of regional issues. “In some cases, borders don’t mean anything,” Vanacour says. “So goes Phoenix, so goes the entire region.
“The line between manager and council needs to be flexible,” he adds. “They always wanted to know what was happening; now they want to know why it’s happening.”
To keep the council up to date, Vanacour has weekly, one-on-one meetings with the members, as well as quarterly lunch or dinner meetings with the group. He also connects with the council by issuing a bi-weekly “Manager’s Bulletin Board,” a written summary of the top 10 or 15 things happening in Glendale. (Vanacour says the bulletin may include project updates or announcements of community achievements – e.g., students winning awards.) “I just try to give them little tidbits every other week,” he says.
Additionally, realizing that council members are covered up with paperwork, Vanacour uses colored paper to announce correspondence from his office. That procedure allows the members to cut through stacks of paper and identify the manager’s memos and bulletins immediately. “They know it’s coming from me,” Vanacour explains.
Opening new avenues
While the council-manager relationship can be complicated, Vanacour’s use of colored paper suggests that the strategies for their success often can be simple. For example, Svara notes that councils and managers commonly participate in year-end retreats as an exercise in team-building, using that time to look back and to look ahead. Additionally, technology provides numerous ways for councils and managers to enhance their interaction. In Lynchburg, for instance, Church uses e-mail for daily contact with council members, and his office maintains the city’s web site.
But Church notes that his most useful technological tool is a computer program that tracks residents’ complaints by district. Council members can log onto their computers at any time and learn the nature of their constituents’ complaints, as well as the city’s responses to those complaints.
Like Lynchburg, Glendale uses a computer program to track its customer service, and the city council has automated access to that data. The same program tracks crime by district, giving council members the information they need to suggest how, where and when to assign police patrols.
Providing information is, of course, the bulk of the manager’s role in the council-manager relationship. And it often falls to the manager to find avenues of communication that work for everyone involved.
Therefore, as the council-manager relationship continues to evolve, so must managers’ approaches to strengthening that relationship. Industry conferences are one of the best resources for getting new ideas, Vanacour says. Managers should talk to other managers and exchange war stories and success stories. “If you just come away with one idea, that makes a difference,” he says. Paul Kane is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.