C-M relations - Austin

by George B Cuff, FCMC, president, George B Cuff & Associates Ltd. 

After four decades of consulting to municipalities across North America and overseas, I may have finally figured out why municipal councils seem to begin with great energy but often (and soon after) burn out. It is not that council members do not want to add value to their community; it has much more to do with the fact that often (in my experience) they do not understand how and, in many cases, their administrations are not sure how to help them. One would think that this is highly unlikely, given how long local governments have been in place and the obvious good intent most of their members have when they arrive.

What’s Missing?

One thing is certain: in most municipalities there will be change. In fact, in many communities entire councils have turned over; whereas in others, there may be much more modest change. I would argue that even one new council member has the potential to change everything simply based on the member's temperament, expectations, and reasons for running for office.

An Orientation Needed for All

What many administrators fail to understand is that every new term of office should begin with an orientation for all members, not simply those who are the most recently elected. I premise this on the need for all members to be seen and to be at the table with their new colleagues so that the full council gets off to a good start. The notion that “I was elected some years ago and, therefore, I know all that there is to know” is simply not true. Everyone should appreciate the value of continuous learning and of being at the same table as those brand new to elected life. In particular, newly electeds will understand that you care about them and that you appreciate the need for all members to become part of a council team.

While brand new members might expect to set aside two days (in some larger municipalities this can stretch over several weeks) for their orientation, those who are returning may only require the second day. The first day should be given over to the more logistical issues facing new people so that there is a basic familiarization with standard operating practices. Some of those protocols or operating practices, depending on the size of the municipality, might include:

  • A tour of all municipal facilities and an overview of their costs of operation.
  • A briefing on the law as it applies to a municipality and what that means in terms of potential conflicts and the powers accorded to your municipality to function.
  • A description of what is not a part of a municipal mandate.
  • An overview of a standard council meeting (i.e. what format is followed; what rules of procedure apply; how to make a motion; how often a member can speak to any topic and for how long; what rights does a citizen have who wants to attend and to participate).
  • Access to city hall; assigned or available parking space.
  • Photos/bio sketches for website.
  • Access to municipal electronic services.
  • Access to support staff; are any staff designated to council; if not, who is key contact; does council contact the municipal administrator?
  • What level of contact is deemed to be off limits?

Introduction to the System and the People

In addition to the more logistical aspects of becoming a new member of council, every new council should expect to receive a broad overview of the system that the council is expected to govern. The administrator (city manager) should conduct the briefing of the organization and ensure that all councilors receive an organization chart (at least to the point of identifying department heads). In addition, the city manager will identify and answer questions pertaining to:

  • Who can a councilor contact for information or for a response to a question from citizens; why the protocol limits direct contact to the city manager or his/her direct reports only.
  • Who are the key department heads and what do they do: direct reports are introduced, including a brief background and described as “these are council’s key resources.”
  • The mayor should be asked to explain the concept of “one employee,” which identifies the administrator/city manager as council’s principal employee and as their source of reports and advice (more on this in my next article).

There are other logistical matters that could be covered on day one of a comprehensive orientation process, but the foregoing at least identifies some of what I would imagine are the absolute basics.

The orientation day, which I would argue should be mandatory for all members of council, would be day two when the essence of “council governance” is fully described. This second day will describe council’s role in bylaws, policies, key policies and their renewal; performance review of the city manager; governance model; strategic thinking/planning; engaging the public on the street or through social media; current key issues and their status; current style of council decision-making; linkage to the community; upcoming challenges as foreseen by the council and administration; and the council-CAO relationship and the degree of confidence evident between these two key components.

It is generally this second day’s content that will generate the most discussion and often the greatest number of complaints from both council and its manager. Good governance is elusive, complex, and can be very challenging. But if the citizens are to be well-served, the task of learning what this means and how to effectively practice it will be worth the effort both council members and management exert at the outset of any term.

George B Cuff, FCMC is president of George B Cuff & Associates Ltd. based outside of Edmonton, Alberta. His firm has offered seminars on governance and good management for the past 40 years and as well has conducted over 500 reviews of municipalities, government departments, agencies, and not-for-profits. His background can be found on www.georgecuff.com. He has taught in the ICMA University program over the past 10 years on the topic of “Fatal Flaws of a Council-Manager Relationship.” George has a background both as a municipal manager and as a mayor elected four times serving 12 years in that capacity.


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