Article Solutions for Cities By Tim Seufert

The municipal CEO was a significant evolution for California cities

Tim Seufert is the managing director at NBS. He may be reached at (800) 434-8349 or


Cities, counties, and special districts are where most Americans interact with their government on a day-to-day basis. These interactions generally leave people with a more positive impression of government than their interactions with state or federal institutions. Yet it was not always that way: The last century yielded a significant evolution in local agency management.

The council-manager professionalization movement was born out of a purposeful desire to rid local agencies of fraudulent dealings, backroom trading, and political meddling. Going back to the late 1800s, critics decried the corruption and bossism in cities across the country. Haven H. Mason, a prominent official in Santa Clara and San Francisco in the late 1800s, advocated for a “distinct profession of municipal managers” who would have “sound business judgment” and apply “strict business principles” in their municipal management.

This led to a wave of organizational, educational, and political support for the profession in the 20th century that continues today. Universities began offering government-focused degrees, including the well-known master’s degrees in public administration and public policy. City officials established member organizations like the California City Managers Foundation and the League of California Cities. Some organizations, like the California Special Districts Association, even created professional certification programs.

The council-manager system of government now has over a century of positive history in California, as well as other states. Ninety-seven percent of California’s 482 cities are said to operate under this nonpartisan and professional management mindset, compared with 48% nationwide. Many special districts and counties have adopted this same nonpartisan, professional management style over the years, as well.

Only five major cities in California currently use a “strong mayor” form of government: Fresno, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego, and San Francisco. In those cities, the elected mayor is the chief administrative officer who works with an appointed administrative official. San Francisco arguably has the strongest mayor of the five, though in recent years the Board of Supervisors has instituted many restrictions on mayoral power. Outside of those handful of cities, a city or town manager serves as a municipal CEO.

A 2023 study by the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College, notes these professionals are the “most important group of local government officials in the state today.” Despite the century-long wave of professionalization, there are few comprehensive studies and statistics on the profession’s demographics. The study attempts to fill that void and contains a lot of impressive data. A few select highlights include:

  • Over 70% of city managers have postgraduate degrees.
  • Their career experience averages more than 25 years in the public sector and over five in the private sector.
  • About half of them were promoted to the role after having served as an assistant or deputy city manager.
  • While women are still a minority, their representation has recently increased significantly, along with some increasing diversity of the profession as a whole.

California communities have and will continue to benefit from this wave of professional management, both in terms of overall results, as well as the diversification of municipal management staff. The professionalization has led to more types of services, with many serving as models for state or even federal programs. It will be interesting to see how the next 100 years shape the lives of cities and the people who call them home.

Since the last century, Tim and his colleagues at NBS have proactively supported municipal CEOs and their teams in a variety of ways. Most efforts involve consulting for some type of funding tool that engages and improves the community overall. This might include support of an existing or new Special Financing District, like a parcel tax, CFD, or assessment district — or analysis of utility rates, fee studies, fiscal impacts, or providing related advice.