City managers thrive on professionalism

By Bob Roegner, Inside Politics

Federal Way has had a council-manager form of government since its incorporation, although other forms were considered prior to its adoption.

In this form of government, the council sets the policy under which the city manager administers the daily operations. The council hires and fires the city manager, and a council member is chosen every two years by fellow council members to serve as mayor.

Federal Way has had four city managers along with some acting city managers.

The manager usually has eight to 10 years of experience in addition to professional credentials. The manager has control of the city administration and its employees, and according to state law, council members are not to intrude into the manager’s sphere of authority. This provides a clear separation between the professional and political.

Strictly speaking, the council has one employee, the manager. All other employees report to the manager.

City managers and their directors are considered non-political, meaning they are neither political appointees nor do they typically become involved in any of the election campaigns of members of the city council.

In a strong mayor system, department directors usually endorse and contribute to the mayor’s re-election. In both systems, city employee unions can, and do, support or oppose candidates for city council.

For city managers to be effective in their jobs, they are usually very skillful in figuring out both the council member politics and the community politics.

If they aren’t good at this, they won’t last very long.

City managers, just like full-time mayors, learn quickly which battles are worth fighting and which are not.

Managers go to community events, but usually try to keep a low profile. They always need to be able to count to four; that’s what it takes to fire them. As a result, they work very hard at consensus and much of their work is done in a low-key “staff support” manner, behind the scenes.

Their key role is to keep everything moving as smoothly as possible, make sure all the staff is on the same page, identify and resolve issues before they become problems, and accomplish annual city goals.

A smart mayor will keep a “friendly” council in the loop on issues, but a city manager must keep the council in the loop. The last thing the city manager needs is to get outflanked by a union issue or something appearing in the newspaper the council didn’t know about. It undercuts the manager’s credibility.

Strong mayors sell their projects to the council. Managers know which projects are important to the council and make sure they happen, but usually don’t push too much after making their recommendation.

City managers also serve as the city council’s “good government” conscience in that they are trained professionals who focus on managing government in the most efficient, objective and least political manner possible.

Sometimes city council members want to act “politically.” A group of citizens may want a particular project that is not a city priority, but some council members want to approve it anyway. That’s acting politically.

This is the hard part of the manager’s job. Telling the council they probably shouldn’t do something that they want to do — because it would make a group of voters happy — is difficult.

It can be awkward in two ways. First, it tends to annoy members of the council, particularly if it’s an election year for some of them. Secondly, those council members will likely explain to their constituents that the manager was opposed and may or may not give the reason.

Citizens, and voters, don’t like to hear why their idea or project won’t be approved, and so the manager may get the “blame.”

The other scenario is that the manager starts to get a reputation for being too strong or “controlling” the city council. Over time, managers use up their political capital, and those votes necessary to keep their job get shaky.

Managers understand this dynamic; that is, taking the blame for getting the council members to do something they probably should have done anyway. It’s called protecting your boss. If the manager takes the “blame,” the city council doesn’t.

Sometimes in sophisticated relationships, it can be even managed to that outcome.

But managed or not, eventually it will cost managers their job.

This can happen in a mayor-council form of government, but you’re more likely to see a political dust-up with the mayor and council pointing fingers at each other — or both trying to be first to appease the voters.

All citizens and their concerns should be treated equally and objectively, and their ideas or projects should be approved on merit, not political expediency.

A good city manager can accomplish this. Many strong mayors can as well; others will go for the political gain.

Next week, some final thoughts.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.

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