Image of magnifying glass on newspapers

As a member of ICMA’s Assistant Chief Administrative Officer (ACAO) Committee, I knew about my assignment to write an article for PM magazine about 10 months ago. I knew throughout the year my topic would come to me, but it didn’t come too easily. I pondered on what could supplement the articles already written for the column or bring a unique perspective for ACAOs. I enjoy researching family history so that gave me an idea.

Looking at the history of the council-manager form of government and the city manager position, we know that the first city manager was Charles E. Ashburner, who worked in Staunton, Virginia (1908–1911); Springfield, Ohio (1914–1918); Norfolk Virginia (1918–1923); and Stockton, California (1923–1928). But who, when, and where was the first official assistant city manager (ACM) in local government?

I found a list of cities that were among the first of those who adopted the council-manager form of government or incorporated the city manager position within their organization, including the cities where Mr. Ashburner was city manager. I emailed the city secretary/clerk and the library staff asking about their first ACM. Now I’d like to pause and thank all of those who responded to my emails and provided information and copies of newspaper articles or meeting minutes. Their assistance and research are the essence of my article. I’ll share the top five results from the following cities: Dallas, Texas; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Staunton, Virginia; Amarillo, Texas; and Wichita, Kansas.

The city of Dallas adopted the council-manager form of government in 1931. The Dallas Public Library shared a Dallas Morning News article from June 17, 1933, with David L. Robinson listed as the ACM. The article is titled “City Seeks Data on Federal Loans” and states, “…David L. Robinson Jr., [a]ssistant [c]ity [m]anager, discussed various ways of financing a loan from the [federal] [g]overnment Friday and the projects to be included on a possible eligible list.” Prior to being the ACM, he was the assistant city engineer in Dallas.

The city of Grand Rapids adopted the council-manager form of government in 1916. The Grand Rapids Public Library shared a Grand Rapids Press article from May 10, 1929, with George H. Waring listed as ACM. The article is titled “Waring’s Salary Fixed at $12,000” and states, “George H. Waring’s salary as director of public service and ex-officio assistant city manager, was fixed Thursday afternoon at $12,000 a year.” Before you use the inflation calculator, I will tell you that $12,000 in 1929 equates to about $216,500 in 2023. In later articles, we read that his salary in this position was divided between the general fund and utility fund as he continued to serve as director of public service—similar to utilities or public works.

Next up is the city of Staunton, Virginia. Staunton is well known as the first municipality to use the council-manager form of government in 1908. Naturally, I thought they would also be in the mix as one of the first cities to have an ACM. The Staunton Public Library shared an article from The Staunton News-Leader from February 10, 1926, that mentioned Marie Gordon Haines as ACM. The article, titled, “Miami Gets Big Earful of News from Staunton,” states, “…and now comes a first woman city clerk and assistant city manager. Marie Gordon Haines occupies this unique position in the thriving city of Stanton, Virginia.” Before becoming ACM, she was clerk of water works, then city clerk and assistant city manager. Unfortunately, the library shared that she exaggerated her title to the reporter in Miami and resigned within a week of the news reaching Staunton.

We return to the great state of Texas for a two-step shuffle closer to first ACM with the city of Amarillo. The city adopted the council-manager form of government in November 1913. The Amarillo Public Library shared an article from The Amarillo Globe Times from October 25, 1925, mentioning Harve Avery. The article, titled, “City of Amarillo has Special Agent,” started with, “‘Is the [c]ity of Amarillo employing an [a]ssistant [c]ity [m]anager to assist Jeff Bartlett?’ is a question asked by a taxpayer of The Globe this morning.” The immediate response in the article: “Amarillo hasn’t an assistant to Mr. Bartlett [the city manager] but it is employing Harve Avery at a salary of $200/month as a special agent or special representative of the city commission.” Not quite an ACM, although it seems at least one taxpayer thought Amarillo had one. (Incidentally, $200/month in 1925 equates to a $41,734 annual salary in 2023.)

This brings us to our final stop on the search for the first official, documented assistant city manager. The city of Wichita, Kansas, adopted the council-manager form of government in 1918. This is 10 years after Staunton, five years after Amarillo, and two years after Grand Rapids. The Wichita Public library shared articles from The Wichita Beacon from December 8, 1919, with Fred W. Sefton named as the ACM. The article, “Have Wood to Give But No Way To Distribute,” stated, “F. W. Sefton, assistant city manager, said today that offers had been made by persons who said they would haul fuel free of charge, but he had been unable to get anyone to do the work without pay.” Wichita had a few more articles from 1919 and 1920 that continue to document Sefton as the ACM before he left in May 1921, to become the city manager of Salina, Kansas.

What can we learn from the search for the first number two? First, newspapers are valuable for documenting the work and actions of local government staff, and library staff willing to research historical records are a gift and benefit to the community. Second, from the beginning of the city manager position, they have always needed assistance, whether from other city staff, unofficial ACMs, or designated assistant city managers, at least for the last 104 years, and undoubtedly for the foreseeable future.

Thank you to Fred W. Sefton for his inaugural service and thank you to all the ACMs out there!



MATT WOJNOWSKI, ICMA-CM, is assistant city manager of Hutto, Texas.

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