Opinion

In defense of city managers

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Opinion,Op-Eds

Many of today's U.S. cities face tremendous fiscal challenges, as Stephen Eide discussed in a recent column ("Only politicians can save us now," Aug. 2.) But to suggest a solution that pits strong political leadership against professional local government management, however, is misguided.

For our cities to be successful, they require the combination of strong political leadership, strong policy development, a relentless focus on execution and results, a commitment to transparent and ethical government, and a strategy for representing and engaging every segment of the community. This, and not exclusive reliance upon the power of our politicians, is the bold reform that is needed now.

Eide cited a number of California cities as examples in which council-manager communities (as opposed to cities in which the elected mayor oversees the managerial function) have suffered financial and managerial difficulties during the past few years. But more than 400 council-manager cities throughout the state continue to operate successfully. Although most council-manager jurisdictions in California face incredible financial strain, the majority are managing these challenges commendably.

The council-manager model of government does not guarantee efficiency or competence. It does, however, substantially increase the odds. IBM's David Edwards, for example, benchmarked the 100 largest cities in the U.S. to assess and compare their relative efficiency. In "Smarter, Faster, Cheaper," Edwards reported that what determines how efficiently a city deploys resources is management, and that communities with the council-manager form of government are nearly 10 percent more efficient than those with strong mayoral forms of government. "[M]anagers are important," Edwards wrote. "They influence outcomes."

Other rankings also bear out Edwards' findings. Nearly two-thirds of Moody's triple-A bond-rated cities are run by a professional local government manager, and 60 percent of the 100 "Best Places to Live" identified by CNNMoney in 2011 operate with a professional manager.

The stringently enforced Code of Ethics adopted by ICMA, the International City/County Management Association, requires professional local government managers to be dedicated to the highest ideals of honor and integrity in all public and personal relationships; refrain from all political activities that undermine public confidence in professional administrators; and, refrain from seeking personal aggrandizement or profit secured by confidential information or misuse of public time. Unfortunately, a very small percentage of city managers do not perform up to these standards. But this is not unique to the city management profession. Moreover, the vast majority of city managers work relentlessly to provide efficient, effective services while meeting the highest standards of ethics and integrity.

The contribution of professional management to our communities is evident even in cities such as Bell, Calif. Last fall -- following a period of intense public scrutiny precipitated by the conduct of several former appointed and elected officials, including the city manager -- the members of ICMA received accolades from the city's leaders for the assistance our members provided to that community during some of its most difficult months. Bell now has a permanent, professionally trained city manager and its financial affairs are stabile and transparent.

This is just one example of why now, more than ever, the combination of the strong political leadership from a community's elected representatives and strong administrative leadership in the form of a highly trained and ethical professional local government manager is critical to the success of our communities. Under any form, the citizenry must be involved in their local governments and select the best possible local elected officials possible. These strong politicians need strong professional managers to implement their vision. Together these individuals can help communities deal with the very significant challenges our cities face and achieve the results that will ensure their future viability and a high quality of life for all citizens.

Robert J. O'Neill Jr. is executive director of the International City/County Management Association.

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