Reading the article, “Authority Versus Power in Local Government,” by Jason Grant, ICMA’s director of advocacy, sparked a memory for me. There was a time in my career when, after serving for several years as city manager and in other roles in council manager jurisdictions, I was offered a city administrator position in a community with a strong mayor form of government. I would be lying if I didn’t say I approached the position with trepidation.
From my first experience as an intern in the city manager’s office in Southfield, Michigan, I could see how the work that I was doing affected the everyday lives of people in powerful ways. As I completed my education and continued on with my career in local government, I came to understand the differences between the forms of local government and ultimately became a strong advocate for the council-manager form.
As a number of studies have demonstrated, council-manager jurisdictions are less likely to engage in corruption, are more creditworthy, and are more innovative. So, in some ways, I felt like taking on the role of city administrator in a strong mayor city was like walking into the lion’s den. But this town happened to be the home of my alma mater and I felt a strong connection to it. The mayor was a popular and charismatic man. But I explained to him that I would be doing the job as I had always done it—by applying my professional knowledge and experience to the challenges in front of us. In addition, I explained I would continue to subscribe to the tenets of the ICMA Code of Ethics, as well as the fundamental ideals of our profession. The mayor was fine with that and together with the council and staff we went on to accomplish important goals for the community.
The story does not end there. In the next election cycle, the mayor faced a formidable competitor who had served on the council. She soundly defeated “my boss” and I prepared for what I thought would be my inevitable termination, since I might have been seen as the former mayor’s appointee. However, that was not the case. The new mayor asked me to stay on, saying she admired my professionalism and objectivity in carrying out the responsibilities of the position, even though she disagreed with her predecessor on almost everything.
In the course of my career and especially in my role as executive director at ICMA, I have met many colleagues who have been in similar situations. We talk about how by conducting ourselves according to our professional training and in accordance with our Code of Ethics, we have been able to navigate some stormy career experiences. Most of us have been faced with situations that are less than ideal, where we might find ourselves somewhere in the middle, where perhaps the role isn’t as precisely defined as it can be in the council-manager form. Those are the times when our profession sustains us.
A few years ago, an ICMA member task force refined the core practices of professional local government managers. We are excited by the results of a recent survey that determined that those 14 core leadership and management practices resonate all over the world—even in places where local government is a relatively new concept.3 They form the foundation of ICMA’s professional development programs and are integrated into everything we do, from the annual conference to our publications, and we intend to share this work more purposefully on a global scale.
Ultimately, what we all care about is quality of life in our communities. As Jason points out in his article, under the C-M form, all people, regardless of political affiliations, have equitable access to the programs and services offered by their local government. They are assured that professionals with the knowledge, skills, and abilities are running operations, working toward goals set by the community and elected officials. The role of the professional manager, regardless of the form, transcends politics and focuses on getting the job done.