Recent media scrutiny of city managers — or, more specifically, their compensation — has reached a fever pitch in California and across the country. The city management and governmental compensation abuses uncovered last month in the small Los Angeles suburb of Bell are deplorable and warrant a full investigation. Such trespasses are rare in a profession known for transparency and populated by talented and dedicated individuals.
Without the benefit of knowing the full extent of a city manager’s responsibilities, the public has been swept up not in a debate but a tempest of suspicion fueled partly by the very real pain of the nation’s current recession. Which makes this a good time to address the underlying question: What is the role of a city manager?
City managers are executive-level talent tasked with maintaining and improving infrastructure and ensuring the delivery of services that foster citizens’ comfort and safety, including police, fire, water, sewer and the maintenance of streets and parks. These professionals coordinate city planning and the multitude of visible and invisible moving parts necessary to sustain a vibrant community; ironically, it is often only when something goes wrong that their role is noticed. But because his or her responsibilities impact every resident every day, it’s important to acknowledge the efforts of the city manager even when things are going well in your city.
City managers do not fall into their positions by happenstance; most have a sincere passion for public service and want to make a difference by assisting the development of healthy communities. However, it takes more than the desire to grow a city; it requires a keen and constant sense of logistics and a thorough knowledge of government, public administration and finance. Worker unionization requires the city manager to be a skilled labor and contract negotiator, while the demand of citizens to be heard and kept informed necessitates clear communication and leadership skills.
It goes without saying that all executives are not created equal, and the administrative talent pool from which city managers are drawn is limited. As a result, hundreds of California cities have clearly and reasonably prioritized investing in highly qualified managers with the expectation of yielding long-term, positive results. Meanwhile, many city managers are accepting reduced compensation voluntarily for the greater good of their communities.
Comprised of city managers across the state, the California City Management Foundation cultivates these professionals by extending support and offering best-practice resources to its membership. It is CCMF’s mission to foster council-manager relations and the well-being of city managers in order to ensure stable and successful communities. City managers see themselves on the council’s team — those elected set the direction and establish policy and the city manager executes the tasks.
The established leadership structure involves a well-tested system of checks and balances whereby voters elect their leaders, who in turn hire the city manager and decide his or her salary based on parameters that vary from city to city. Open meetings and other opportunities for public participation are also essential parts of the system.
CCMF, in partnership with the League of California Cities and the California affiliate of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), is committed to transparency in hiring practices and compensation packages while adhering to the city managers’ code of ethics developed by ICMA. (ICMA additionally has affirmed that the standard practice for establishing the compensation of local government managers is fair, reasonable, transparent and based on comparable public salaries regionally and nationally.)
Of course, cities should weigh proposed compensation cuts against competitiveness when hiring managers — being mindful that such action may attract less-qualified talent and possibly lead to systemic breakdowns. That said, in these times of financial duress, it is more important than ever that city government and its employees be held accountable. Our fellow tax-paying citizens, who continue to sacrifice as they either search for work or work much harder just to make ends meet, deserve nothing less.
Bill Garrett, formerly a city manager serving the Southern California cities of El Cajon and Corona, is executive director of the California City Management Foundation (www.cacitymanagers.org). The organization is comprised of more than 200 active and retired city managers statewide.