Ask a Manager: Three Key Elements of Council-Manager Relations

One city manager shares his insights on council-manager relations.

BLOG POST | Feb 27, 2018

by Thomas Fountaine II, borough manager, State College, Pennsylvania

Among the responsibilities of a professional local government manager is the role of maintaining a positive relationship with the governing body and working with them to enhance their work. I would argue that this is the most critical role for the manager in a council-manager government. A strong manager with a poor relationship with the elected officials will not succeed, and a strong council that does not have a good relationship with the manager will not be as effective in accomplishing its goals. This relationship is so critical that the International City/County Management Association Code of Ethics includes a tenet that specifically addresses the relationship between the council and manager. Tenet 6 states:

Recognize that elected representatives of the people are entitled to the credit for the establishment of local government policies; responsibility for policy execution rests with the members.

Among the keys to achieving and maintaining a strong, positive, and mutually respectful relationship between the council and the manager are three elements:

1. Build the Team

Teamwork between the elected officials, the manager, and the local government staff is an important aspect of a successful relationship. This teamwork begins anew following every election. Each new council has its own distinct personality, and the goals and policy agenda may well change with the election. Even when there is not a change in the members of the council, a change in the leadership of the governing body may change priorities and the way in which the council conducts its meetings. Thus, one of the keys at the beginning of each new council term is to build the new team.

The manager can play a key role in this process by helping the new council through a comprehensive orientation program. It is important for this orientation to occur early, either immediately following the election or early in the new council term. I have found that the best result comes from meeting individually with the newly elected officials shortly after the election and then providing a full group orientation for the full council and mayor right after the new council is sworn in.

In this orientation, I’ve found it immensely important to define and review the dichotomy between the council’s responsibility to set policy for the local government and the manager’s responsibility for the administration of the organization and to carry out the policy set by council.

I’ve utilized James H. Svara’s model to help describe this shared dichotomy. Svara’s model is shown below.










2. Communication, Communication, Communication

Communication is another key element in building and maintaining mutually respectful and positive relations between the council and the manager. This may be the most critical element: maintaining trust and confidence, which occurs at two levels:

  1. Communication with the full council.
  2. Communication with individual members.

Communication will help build relationships that in turn will enhance trust and confidence and significantly improve and enhance a positive relationship.

Several basic communication principles should be followed:

  • Ensure that all elected officials receive the same information.
  • Ensure that all elected officials receive information at the same time.
  • Provide regular reports to elected officials.
  • Don’t let elected officials be surprised by information – make sure they know about events before they learn about them from the news or a neighbor.
  • Ensure that all communication is professional.
    • Provide facts.
    • Provide alternatives.
    • Provide analysis that is professional and not based on personal opinion.
    • Provide professional basis for recommendation.

While there is an opportunity to communicate to the full council at every public meeting, it is also important to make time available to communicate with individual council members on a regular basis. This one-on-one communication should be a priority.

Communication is also one of the easiest aspects of the council-manager relationship to slip. In a world where electronic communication can easily substitute for interpersonal communication, it is important to set aside time and make personal communication a priority.

3. Performance Management and Evaluation

A critical piece of the council-manager relationship involves a process that includes both the council and the manager in setting clear expectations and agreeing on specific goals. Goals and expectations should relate to and be built on the foundation of the overarching goals and objectives for the community that council sets. Without expectations and goals, neither the council nor manager has a clear vision for the community, making it difficult to make decisions about policy, set priorities, and move the community in the right direction.

The second part of this process involves a regular review of how effective the manager is in accomplishing these goals and managing the municipality to advance the mission of the organization. While the periodic review may occur multiple times throughout the year, it is imperative that this evaluation occurs at least annually. As part of this process, councils might want to engage in a self-evaluation process as well. This affords the council an opportunity to be introspective about how well it has functioned during the year. It allows council members individually, and the council as a body, to consider how well it has carried out its community leadership responsibility.

Another important dimension of managerial effectiveness and evaluation process should consider the manager’s ability to implement policy without “fear or favor,” even when the manager might not entirely agree with the decision of the governing body. As the manager and the management staff provide council with sound and professional analysis of alternatives in policy considerations, and to provide a professional recommendation based on expertise, experience, and evidence, it is important to avoid injecting personal opinion in this process. However, the council also has a responsibility to make the final decision on policy issues, and the decision does not always follow the manager’s recommendation. The manager has a responsibility to implement these policies with the same effectiveness and commitment to professional management as if the council decided to follow the manager’s recommendations. Furthermore, it is also critical that the manager demonstrates staff leadership and holds the staff responsible for also fully embracing the implementation of these policy decisions. This should be part of the regular review and evaluation process.

Good and effective council-manager relations is a principal component of a well-governed and well-managed municipality. The great communities are those that have taken the time and effort to build their team, communicate regularly, set goals and expectations, and evaluate progress and performance regularly. This is hard work, and it requires a full commitment to excellence by the governing body and the manager. This work also creates the foundation of trust that is central to a great relationship, great governance, and great leadership.

To learn more about council-manager relations check out ICMA's e-book Making It Work: The Essentials of Council-Manager Relations.  


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