As most elected officials in cities with council-manager governance know, there are few people who will have a bigger impact on a city’s trajectory than its city manager. While the city council sets direction and policy, the city manager goes forth to make his or her council’s vision a reality – everyday.
The city manager is the chief executive officer, overseeing the entire city operation. Their responsibilities entail managing executive leadership, implementing council directives and providing advice and insights to electeds to aid them in their decision-making.
The role of the city manager will, at times, make them a lightning rod for attention. Occasionally, new council majorities or established councils move to dismiss city managers in times of unanticipated political or operational issues. In other instances, a city manager may exit a city of their own accord, leaving council members to fill the critical position.
The result of this volatility is that the average tenure of a city manager in California is only 4 years and 7 months (exact details on city manager tenure are actually the subject of a 2023 research project funded by the California City Management Foundation and underwritten in part by TS Talent Solutions). The average council member will likely work through a city manager transition process at least once during their service on the city council. The following are a few insights to help council members evaluate the impact of a city manager transition on the city organization.
Impacts of City Manager Terminations
City managers serve at the pleasure of the council. Often, the only other direct report to the council is the city attorney. New council majorities may be inclined to change the policy direction from a prior council majority. Sometimes a shifting political agenda is connected with a perceived need to terminate a city manager as part of the political change or as a symbolic transition. There are two critical points to make about that circumstance:
- First, the city manager takes the council’s lead and direction. Unless a council is asking a city manager to violate an ethical, professional or legal standard, the manager will almost always want to deliver on the direction that the city council gives them. Assuming they need to be pushed out as part of a political transition is not a correct assumption.
- Second, terminating a city manager might actually do more harm than good for a new council’s goals, which is a far more complex consideration.
Termination of a city manager will likely lead to the following negative impacts:
- There will be overall organizational disruption and inefficiency if there is not a strong hand on the rudder for the city organization. After all, a key function of the city manager is to ensure optimal performance of the organization. With a gap in leadership, there will be inefficiencies. Key decisions and actions will be frozen as senior staff awaits direction from a new executive leader. The council will find their ideas and programs slowed and major initiatives and decisions deferred, as they wait for a new executive to weigh in on decisions and/or set new direction.
- Fear will trump productivity. For weeks or months, city staff’s focus will remain on identifying their new city manager. They will be at the water cooler discussing the uncertainty of the future. Senior staff will wonder if they are next to be pushed out of the city. Ultimately, this can crush morale and sap innovation.
- Your city will risk a drain of key institutional knowledge as other directors in your city weigh the impact of the city manager’s exit on their own careers and the city’s timeline. Directors may be inclined to start the quest for a “Plan B” in case things go wrong; sometimes, even if they don’t go wrong, a greener pasture may appear for them.
- The transition period can take a long time from the day a city manager exits to when a new one is hired. A typical time period for finding a new city manager is about six months unless the council already has plans in place. This could include appointing a new full-time or interim city manager from within the organization or asking a retired city manager to fill in as an interim. Nonetheless, six months is an eternity for a new council to wait for their decisions to be implemented, especially if those who elected them are expecting fast change from a new political majority.
- Firing a city manager comes with financial costs, too. Because city manager employment is at the will of a city council, and city managers often move their families for new jobs, the position usually comes with a severance in the employment contract. This is common for senior executives in the private sector as well, but your community may not fully understand why their council is paying at least six months (if not a year) of the city manager’s salary just to move them out the door. Severance, combined with deferred vacation and sick pay, can add up to a large one-time fee paid to someone who no longer serves your city. Additionally, many cities choose to hire a search firm to find a replacement. This is not uncommon in order to find the best talent for a top position. The cost is typically between $25,000 and $40,000. The optics and headlines for severance and recruiting costs can be a PR and political challenge.
- Finding talent to replace a departing city manager might be hampered if the departure is ugly or handled unprofessionally. Even worse, a messy exit process indicates to the city manager talent pool that the council (to which they will report) will be volatile. City managers are a well-connected group: they talk with each other. A thorough candidate will call the person that just left the role and ask them to be blunt about the organization and the council. Abrupt and acrimonious departures will cause seasoned city managers to take a pass, leaving a smaller talent pool to replace the city manager who the council just removed.
- The public may become divided over the loss of the city manager. Businesses and residents are likely to have built rapport with the city manager. For others, the termination of the city manager is salt on the wound of a lost election. In any case, the termination risks stoking anger and frustration from the public and creating a distraction from the new council’s agenda.
Just because there are negatives to exiting a city manager does not undermine the authority of the council to make that decision. Ultimately, the council is in charge of representing the will and interests of the community. And the city management profession prides itself on dedication to public service and fulfilling its professional duty to deliver on council directives.
Additionally, while the repercussions of exiting a city manager are significant, there are of course many immediate reasons to separate from a city manager including criminal behavior, ethics violations, reputation-impacting decisions and poor performance. In any of these cases, there is often no choice but to rip the Band-Aid off and find new leadership. Indeed, perpetuating a city manager who has clearly violated legal or ethical rules is actually the worst possible outcome for the organization and the community.
In conclusion, weigh the consequences of terminating a city manager against all the potential direct and indirect consequences of that decision. The hiring and firing of your city manager is perhaps the most significant decision you will make as a council member.