Article President’s Message L. Dennis Michael

Navigating the Ups and Downs of the Council-Manager Relationship

Most California cities use the council-manager form of government. In this model, the city council sets policy, passes ordinances, approves new projects and programs and ratifies the annual budget. The city manager implements the policies, advises the council, makes recommendations on council decisions, formulates the budget and oversees the administration and management of staff and resources.

Having the city manager oversee the agency’s day-to-day operations allows the council members to focus on big-picture policy issues without the distraction of administrative tasks, such as managing personnel. It also enables the council to hold one individual accountable for the city’s administration.

First and foremost, the relationship between the city council and the city manager is a partnership that serves the community. This partnership benefits immensely from a council that sees itself as a team. While council members can and do disagree on various issues, they can nevertheless function as a team if all members can agree that their shared goal is to make the best decisions possible for the community they serve. It can be helpful to frame this as a collaborative effort in which all members bring something of value to the task at hand.

Building a Positive, Constructive Relationship

Civility and communication are key elements of an effective council-manager partnership. Respectful discussions that incorporate civility set a positive tone for council meetings and council-manager interactions and help foster a welcoming environment for community members who attend council meetings.

Communicating clearly is essential to a positive, productive relationship between the council and the city manager. When dealing with a controversial or emotionally charged issue, it’s critically important to listen carefully and, in many cases, repeat or paraphrase what you just heard to ensure that you fully comprehend and acknowledge what has been said.

A respectful exchange also involves giving your complete attention to the discussion. This means eliminating distractions to the extent possible, which may include turning off cellphones as a courtesy until the discussion or meeting has concluded.

Separating the people from the problems is another helpful strategy. Emotions can make problem-solving more difficult when people feel passionately about an issue. But attacking the problem — instead of each other — offers a more effective approach and a better way to preserve an important working relationship. It’s OK to disagree, but it’s not OK to be disagreeable.

When communication falters, problems occur. Avoiding conflict, which is human nature, can be a barrier to progress on tough issues. Address issues directly as they arise by communicating clearly and respectfully. Bear in mind that conflict can play a constructive role in problem solving. Complacency can be a red flag. A complacent council and city manager may be avoiding dealing with controversial or thorny problems. Such avoidance can ultimately make the problem much harder to address.

Complaining is another red flag. When one team member complains to another about the performance or approach of a third team member, this generally indicates significant frustration. If a fellow council member complains to you about the city manager or another council member, gently redirect the focus and explore possible ways to address the problem. It may be helpful to say, “I hear you are frustrated. What might we do differently to address this issue? What positive steps can we take to change this dynamic?”

Dealing With Challenges

Difficulties can arise in numerous situations related to the council-manager relationship. One challenge involves council members who don’t see themselves as part of a team — first, as part of the council team, and second, as part of the larger team comprising the council, the entire city organization and the community, including both residents and local businesses. It may be helpful to have a skilled, neutral, third-party facilitator lead the council and manager in discussions and team-building exercises to help nurture a culture of teamwork. Another useful tool is to “think greatness.” Former City Manager Gary O’Connell described this in a 2007 article titled “Council-Manager Relations: Finding Respectable Ground” in Public Management magazine:

If you have [a] theme to help emphasize excellence and high performance (such as building a world-class community), it goes a long way to help staff and employees understand that goal. This kind of thinking appeals to many councils and helps them think about the larger, difficult and more strategic issues in the community.

Another pitfall occurs when a council member doesn’t have a clear understanding of the council’s role. For example, when a council member bypasses the city manager and gives direction to city staff, it puts the staff in an awkward position and can undermine the city manager’s position. In my city, the city manager welcomes council members talking to city department heads but not front-line staff — and only in the context of having a discussion, not giving direction, which is the city manager’s responsibility.

The council member who treats council meetings as an opportunity to grandstand creates yet another type of challenge. A 2002 Western City “Everyday Ethics” article titled “Dealing With a Grandstander” explores this issue in-depth:

The dictionary defines “grandstanding” as “playing or acting so as to impress onlookers.” Public meetings were not created as opportunities for elected officials (or wannabe elected officials) to impress each other, the media or the public. The purpose of a public meeting is to accomplish the public’s business in the most productive, efficient and professional manner possible.

The article explains that grandstanding wastes the time of the public, staff and council.

… There are likely to be individuals in the audience who are waiting for an opportunity to speak or for later items on the agenda. They will be frustrated and resentful of an elected official who is prolonging the meeting in a self-serving and unproductive manner — particularly when the audience members have taken the time to come and participate in the agency’s business. … The sense that public meetings are unnecessarily long may ultimately discourage the public from attending the meetings in the long run and alienate them from civic affairs.

 … some agencies have adopted codes of ethics and values that address these kinds of issues. For example, the City of Sunnyvale’s code of conduct specifically says that city council members should “[b]e respectful of other people’s time. Stay focused and act efficiently during public meetings.” It also says council members should “[f]ully participate in city council meetings and other public forums while demonstrating respect, kindness, consideration, and courtesy to others.” In a similar vein, the City of Santa Clara’s Ethics and Values Statement emphasizes the importance of communication, particularly effective two-way communication that involves listening carefully and adding value
to conversation.

In its Attributes of Effective Councils publication, the Institute for Local Government offers these best practice tips:

Build capacity to create a more effective team. The governance team (mayor, council members and city manager) should get to know each other — how each person approaches issues, decision-making and so on. This can be accomplished at annual meetings or workshops throughout the year. In the event that council members disagree, clear ground rules (norms of behavior and practice) can help quell acrimony before it becomes a problem. It’s important to remember that trust is built around understanding and respect, not necessarily agreement.

Supporting the City Manager’s Role

The council can support the city manager in many ways, such as giving him or her permission to take risks and act in an entrepreneurial manner, and providing clear directions with a unified voice. See “Council-Manager Relations: How We Work Together” below for additional tips.

Accepting Responsibility

Everyone makes mistakes. It’s part of the human condition. If you have mistakenly asserted something that you subsequently discover was inaccurate or wrong, share that information and take responsibility for your error. If you have contributed to difficulties in communication, apologize and agree to move on. Don’t allow your mistakes to cast a long shadow — address them promptly. Doing so also helps to build bridges with your colleagues on the council and your community and ultimately improves your ability to serve the public.

Council-Manager Relations: How We Work Together

by Debra Figone

Debra Figone is former city manager of San José. This information was presented at the League’s 2011 City Managers’ Department Meeting.

What your city manager wants from the council to be optimally effective:

  • Respect that we have a council-manager form of government;
  • Allow me to assist in translating your policy interests and priorities to the organization to achieve action;
  • Give clear direction as a council;
  • Feel free to interact directly with department heads on city matters. They are instructed to keep me informed of such contacts, and I ask that you do the same. Please do not direct them. Department heads are agents of the city manager, not free agents;
  • Fix the problem, not the blame. Help create a no-blame culture. If you acknowledge disappointment in public, do so constructively. Scolding should be done privately;
  • Be sensitive about the need to pace the organization and to manage priorities, workload and expectations. Use city processes and protocols to add issues and interests to the workload; and
  • Help me understand how best to communicate with you both as a team and as individuals. These methods must be compatible.

What you, the council, can count on me to do as your city manager:

  • Treat you with respect;
  • Tell you the unvarnished truth;
  • Treat you as partners as well as my employers;
  • Establish individual relationships with you to help each of you be effective council members;
  • Help you to be effective collectively as a city council;
  • Act within my comfort zone on council requests and advise you when a request should go to the entire council;
  • Communicate with you to keep you as equally informed as possible;
  • Listen to you and seek to understand you, your role and your needs;
  • Do my personal and professional best;
  • Respect your council-to-council and council-to-constituent relationships; and
  • Be politically astute but not political.
  • Remember, I am human. If you don’t see these actions, please give me the benefit of the doubt, and then talk to me about it.

Additional Resources

Dealing With a Grandstander
Attributes of Exceptional Councils

Photo credit: Stephen Coburn/

This article appears in the August 2016 issue of Western City
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