Replacing a city manager is one of the most important decisions you will make as a city council member. City managers run the day-to-day of the organization. A good city manager can lift up a team, increase productivity, avoid catastrophic risks and help the council deliver on community priorities. Councils should avoid hiring a city manager that may hobble the organization, create legal landmines or compromise the reputation of the city.

When the council faces the task of hiring a new city manager, there are several courses of action for the council to consider:

    1. Appoint an interim city manager from outside the organization. This person can sustain the executive leadership of the organization and help the council move forward on some programs while searching for a permanent replacement. Sometimes, the interim appointee becomes a viable candidate or grows into the role after a “working interview.” Often, however, the interim is a retired former city manager and likely already an active retiree within the retirement system, and, therefore, they would have to “un-retire” to become the full-time city manager. Most interims will not choose to “un-retire.”
    2. Appoint an executive from within the organization to serve as an interim or permanent city manager. This has the advantage of bringing along the institutional knowledge that person already has while also ensuring the director-level leaders of the organization have familiarity with the appointed interim. Frequently, this person is an Assistant City Manager, Director of Public Works, Director of Finance or Director of Community Development, as these functions tend to cover the broader policy areas of local government that build the skills for the city manager function. If an appointment is made from within the internal team, the council must also consider the impact on the person’s current duties. It is not reasonable to expect the interim appointee to fulfill both the city manager function and the actual function for which they were hired. Additionally, councils should weigh just how long they want this person serving in the interim role. If the appointment is viewed as a “working interview” it would be best for the council to set a tight time frame -perhaps no longer than 120 days -before they make the move to that internal candidate as the official city manager. If this timeline is not made clear, the interim is going to be handicapped in some of their leadership gravitas within the organization and the result could be an undermined interim position that does not show the candidate’s true strengths. Also note that the appointment of the internal candidate, even as interim, will often require and/or result in a pay bump for the employee, even if temporary, so long as they hold that title.
    3. Launch a search using internal resources. An in-house recruitment team possesses an intimate understanding of the organization’s requirements, allowing them to identify the right skills, experience and cultural fit for each role. While their recruiting network might be more limited than a firm that covers a given state or the nation, the team is deeply connected to the organization. The hiring of the city manager will require the human resources function to collaborate directly with the city council. Depending on that relationship and the dynamic associated with the human resources department evaluating internal candidates, it can create some unique team dynamics. Finally, the internal recruiting team is already paid for by the City and, with the exception of some job board fees and maybe contracting for some brochure design work, there is no incremental cost to the City for using its own team.
    4. Conduct an external search using a recruitment firm. There isn’t an obligation to conduct an external search. But when there is no obvious internal candidate, a solid search process performed by a non-biased external party can ensure the qualifications of a candidate are the driving factor in the selection. Council will have the opportunity to consider nationwide candidates rather than just those in their own backyard. While an external search may take time, it may help ensure the position is filled by the most qualified candidate. The recruiting firm can also go a long way to coaching the city council through a selection process as there is a reasonable chance that for some council members, this is their first city manager hiring process. Finally, a recruiting firm is likely well-connected within the new and future city manager community and will have potential candidates, known strengths and weaknesses about candidates and a general pulse on the city management community that will be helpful to the city council’s decision-making process. (And, yes, Tripepi Smith Talent Solutions would appreciate the chance to help you with your city manager search process.) 

City councils should consider the timing of city elections when looking to take one of the above actions. If a city is a few months from an election, there is good reason to hit the pause button on the recruitment, find a solid interim to keep the ball rolling (see options 1 or 2 above) and get through the election process. Some city managers will find being hired by a council that may soon transition out to be a difficult recruitment scenario. Also, newly elected city council members may resent the new city manager they are “handed” by the prior council if someone is appointed within a couple of months prior to the election. Both the city manager hire and the newly formed council are better off if the hiring takes place after the new council is seated.

No matter the course of action taken by the council to fill the interim gap, the goal at the end of the day is to hire a new city manager whom the council embraces (ideally, unanimously). A demonstrated political divide in the hiring of a new city manager at the outset will weaken the new city manager’s leadership position within the city staff ranks and keep the whole organization on edge. Further, strong talent may not accept a position if the council is split on their hiring.

The new city manager may also have a management style or a history with a team of talent that they have worked successfully with in the past, which could result in significant senior leadership team turnover as the new city manager builds out their leadership team. These transitions will disrupt the overall organization and potentially cause delays in programs and initiatives as a new leadership team and tone is established. Turning any organization in a new direction takes time, and it is hard to sustain momentum on existing projects and programs while making a dramatic turn. Patience is required by all involved. But if the culture is bad, change is needed.

Elected officials have a special obligation and responsibility in selecting a city manager. Typically, it is one of the only two positions they will directly hire. The decision to even seek a new city manager, then execute the process to bring the new city manager on board, is time-consuming, usually expensive (with costs far exceeding the cost of a recruitment process)  and often will carry risks and have consequences. But, having launched the process, no matter its reasons, finding the right person and working through the transition can change the course of your city government and the community at large. 

Civic leadership involves difficult and impactful decisions. Tread thoughtfully.