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August 24, 2010 > What is a city manager?

What is a city manager?

By Bill Garrett, Executive Director of the California City Management Foundation

Recent media scrutiny of city managers or, more specifically, their compensation, has reached fever pitch in California and nationwide. The abuses by city management and of governmental compensation revealed last month in the small Los Angeles suburb of Bell, whose city manager was paid $800,000, are deplorable and warrant a full investigation. Such instances are rare in a profession known for transparency and populated by talented and dedicated individuals.

Without knowing the full extent of a city manager's responsibilities, the public has responded with suspicion, fueled partly by the harsh reality of the nation's current recession, instead of engaging in an informed public debate. It is opportune to address the question, "What is the role of a city manager?"

City managers are executive-level talent tasked with maintaining and improving infrastructure and ensuring delivery of services that foster citizens' comfort and safety, including police, fire, water, sewer and street and park maintenance. These professionals coordinate city planning and the multitude of visible and invisible moving parts necessary to sustain a vibrant community. Ironically, their role is noticed only when something goes wrong, but their responsibilities impact every resident daily, so it is important to acknowledge the city manager's efforts even when things are fine.

City managers do not fall into their positions by chance. 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.

Implicitly, not all executives are created equal and the administrative talent pool from which city managers are drawn is limited. Consequently, 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 have voluntarily accepted reduced compensation for the greater good of their communities.

Comprised of city managers across the state, the California City Management Foundation (CCMF) cultivates these professionals by extending support and offering best-practice resources to its membership. CCMF's mission is to foster council-manager relations and the well-being of city managers to ensure stable and successful communities. City managers see themselves on the council's team. Elected officials 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 according to parameters that vary from city to city. Open meetings and other opportunities for public participation are also essential parts of the system.

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.

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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 ( The organization's membership consists of more than 200 active and retired city managers statewide.

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