Article City Forum Natasha Karl

City Manager Profession Hits Century Mark, Looks Ahead

Natasha Karl is a legislative analyst for the League and can be reached at Tim O’Donnell, city manager of Brea, and Joe Goeden, range rider for the League’s Sacramento Valley Division, also contributed to this article.

This year marks the 100th birthday of the city manager profession, which grew out of one city’s innovative action. In the council-manager form of government, the city council is responsible for setting policy and the city manager is responsible for implementing it. In 1908, the City of Staunton, Va., was the first municipality to create the position of city manager, hiring Charles Ashburner for the job. This first city manager was charged with improving city services through better coordination, in response to the needs of a growing population.

Since its inception, the council-manager model has grown tremendously. According to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), the council-manager plan is the most common form of government among large U.S. cities. Originally created to handle day-to-day city services, the city manager’s responsibilities have expanded to include such duties as addressing the personnel deficit caused by the wave of Baby Boomers retiring from public service. This current challenge is exacerbated by a shortage of qualified applicants to fill these vacancies.

A New Kind of Generation Gap

The crisis is real. In the United States, 80 million Baby Boomers are reaching retirement age and will be retiring in droves by the end of this decade. Only 50 million of the next generation (people born between 1965-76) are potentially available to replace them. Worse, more than half of government workers are 45 years of age or older, which is a much higher percentage than in the private sector.

Extensive research has demonstrated how organizations can effectively create a viable pool of replacement employees. In 2005, CPS Human Resource Services, a self-supporting public agency providing a full range of human resource services to the public and nonprofit sectors, released a study titled Building the Leadership Pipeline in Local, State and Federal Government. It identifies two approaches for developing leadership: the just-in-time and integrated models. According to the study, the just-in-time approach focuses on middle management and doesn’t adequately address the dramatically changing demographics of the aging public sector workforce. On the other hand, the integrated model combines multiple planning efforts, including an organizational strategic plan, succession planning, workforce knowledge, and analyses of supply and demand and the workforce gap.

Cities Take Action

In response to the looming employee shortage, Cal-ICMA, the California affiliate of ICMA, launched the Preparing the Next Generation (PNG) initiative in 2000 as a conduit for ideas about how to systematically prepare the next generation of talent. Co-chaired by recently retired Palo Alto City Manager Frank Benest and Brea City Manager Tim O’Donnell, the PNG initiative is offering its fourth year of programming in 2008. The PNG initiative focuses on grooming current employees to replace retiring Baby Boomers and attracting new talent to the city management profession.

Some California cities are adopting innovative methods for effecting change and dealing with the complex challenge of the generational workforce gap. For example, in 2002 the City of Santa Clarita implemented a formal mentoring program to prepare its next generation of talent, and by 2006 nearly one-third of its entire workforce was participating. The City of Thousand Oaks developed a succession planning program that develops employees’ skills and helps them advance professionally within the city, informs students about local government career opportunities, and works proactively with community groups to promote careers in public service. And cities in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties have established an exchange program for municipal employees to improve their abilities and chances for job advancement. (For more about these projects, visit, click on “Articles” and select “Past Issues.” See “Santa Clarita Mentors City Employees,” September 2007; “Exchange Program Supercharges Career Opportunities and Boosts Skills,” April 2008; and “Thousand Oaks Succession Planning Program Builds Employee Base,” April 2008.)

Questions to Ask

Your city should be asking these critical questions: How old is our workforce? When is each employee planning to retire? Are we grooming individuals to fill positions? What are we doing to attract excellent talent? Can we adapt ideas from the good work other cities are doing in this arena?

Charles Ashburner, the nation’s first city manager, probably didn’t envision himself on the frontier of a new profession in 1908, nor could he have foreseen where the profession would be today. His pioneering position as city manager blazed a trail for efficiency in providing city services and implementing public policy. For cities and city managers, the next 100 years promise rapid change and more opportunities for innovation than perhaps any of us can imagine.

What is one of your greatest challenges as city manager?

One million residents to serve, thousands of employees to mobilize, hundreds of political interests at play and one city manager to hold accountable. Therein lies the challenge.
— Debra Figone
City Manager, San Jose

I read an article many years ago where a city manager described our job as being like a quarterback, except you can get tackled by your own team. Being tackled by my own team is the
most unpleasant part of my job as a city manager.

— Donna Landeros
City Manager, Brentwood

Everything is interconnected. Yet we have organized our regulatory agencies, laws and regulations independently, and it’s left to those of us in local governments to balance matters of air quality, stormwater quality, wildlife habitats, flooding, greenhouse gases and the like without any assistance, understanding or funding from the regulators.
— Jere Kersnar
City Manager, Ojai

Coping with the convoluted, broken fiscal structure of local government finance has seemed like a never-ending battle with the state, year after year. As a result, it’s been difficult to predict where we’ll find the money to meet new service demands and sustain existing programs.
— Daniel E. Keen
City Manager, Novato

Working with newly elected officials, some of whom did not completely understand what they had just been elected to do, and watching them become true champions of the work of local government.
— Lauraine Brekke-Esparza
Retired City Manager, Del Mar

This article appears in the August 2008 issue of Western City
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