The year 2021 is a big year for me. It’s my twenty-fifth year in local government, the last 15 of which have been spent as an assistant city manager in three different cities. And in those years, I’ve learned that the number-two position can vary widely from city to city.
I have been responsible for a variety of functions, such as human resources, information technology, planning, public relations, community development, economic development, public works, and on two occasions, interim city manager. Those are all formal functions within a city, but the informal functions are just as important. Confidante, mentor, and observer are also roles I frequently have filled within the cities I have served.
I don’t have to tell any of you that being a city manager is a tough job. City managers need a safe, confidential environment to vent their frustrations and talk through issues. The assistant city manager can and should fill that role. Everyone needs someone to listen and bounce ideas off of, but they also need someone who will be honest and play devil’s advocate. This does require a level of trust and loyalty that is built over time between the city manager and assistant city manager. Being part of those confidential discussions has given me a greater insight into my city manager’s vision for the organization which I can share with the department, heads and other employees—of course, without divulging confidential information.
During the six years in my current job, we have had three police chiefs, three fire chiefs, and two parks and recreation directors. With each new department director, whether they were hired from outside or promoted from within, I have offered to be not only a confidante, but more importantly, a mentor. Helping them become a strong member of the management team is crucial to our city’s success.
When department directors first join our management team, the city manager meets with them to welcome them to their new position and review expectations. Following that meeting, she sends them to me for “a talk.” My offer to them is simple and sincere: I will be their sounding board, a safe space outside their department to talk through ideas and brainstorm solutions. I will help them learn the basic operations of our city if they are new to the organization. Human resources has always been a focus of my career so I’m always available to them to discuss sticky personnel issues that often come with changes in department leadership. I make sure they understand I will do anything I can to help them succeed. I also tell them I will be honest with them if they ask me for advice, but I will never meddle in their department. I promise to alert them if I know something that they want to do will not fly with our city manager, providing them the opportunity to avoid an uncomfortable or embarrassing conversation with the city manager if an idea is not going to be well received.
Working as the number-two in a city is a unique experience as you are not “the boss,” so employees are a little more relaxed and less formal with you, yet they know you have direct access to the boss. The assistant city manager is often responsible for many employee-centered programs, and in the case of my city, I participate, along with the department director, in all final interviews for full-time employees. This gives me the opportunity to interact and get to know many employees while the city manager is busy with elected officials and external issues.
Being assigned the responsibility of human resources opens a lot of doors for informal employee engagement and interaction. The value of this interaction with employees is that the assistant city manager can serve as the eyes and ears of the organization, observing and reporting back to the city manager any potential issues that may be brewing. Sometimes employees have great ideas, but struggle with how to approach management to share their idea or suggestion. It is also my experience that employees will sometimes make comments indirectly in my presence with the hopes I will tell the city manager. Depending upon the comment, I may contact the department director to get clarification on an issue to determine if there is some possible misunderstanding, or if I need to investigate further and inform the city manager.
Being the best number two has everything to do with building a strong, trusting relationship with your number one, the city manager. The trust needs to be mutual. Building trust in all layers of the organization is vital to the success of an assistant city manager. Our efforts to improve the inner workings of the cities we serve enhances the services our employees provide to our residents.