Article Web Exclusive Melissa Kuehne

Tips for Effective Governance

Melissa Kuehne is communications and development manager for the Institute for Local Government and can be reached at

A survey conducted by the California chapter of the International City/County Management Association (Cal-ICMA) cites conflict among council members as one of the most frequent challenges facing city managers. Turbulent interpersonal relationships not only affect the council members involved, but can also plague the council as a whole and present additional challenges to governing effectively. Many elected officials enter public service to positively impact their community, but often find themselves tangled in political or personal battles. Building a strong team takes concentrated effort, but the results are worthwhile.

“To thrive in challenging times, California’s cities need exceptional governance and administrative leadership,” says Martin Gonzalez, executive director of the Institute for Local Government (ILG). “When elected officials and top management professionals partner and govern efficiently, cities can more effectively serve their communities.”

Attributes of Exceptional Governance Teams

Exceptional governance teams share a number of key characteristics.

A Sense of Team. The mayor, council members and city manager see themselves and work as a team to achieve their common purpose. The individual team members work in a coordinated and collaborative manner with a high degree of respect, trust and openness. The team values diversity in style and perspective, and it thinks and acts strategically as it examines issues and situations and decides on a course of action serving the city’s mission and goals.

Clear Roles and Responsibilities. Exceptional councils understand their role is to serve as policy-makers — to represent the values, beliefs and priorities of their community while serving in its best interest. Their responsibilities include developing and adopting a vision for the city; focusing and aligning plans, policies, agreements and budgets to further this vision; and holding themselves and the city manager accountable for results. Such councils understand that the city manager is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city and for implementing and accomplishing the council’s policy objectives. Council members recognize the staff’s subject matter expertise and utilize their knowledge and experience to guide and inform the council’s decision-making.

Strong Working Relationships. Exceptional councils understand that a good working relationship with staff is vital for the city to run successfully. Council members treat each other and staff with dignity and respect. They act with civility and observe a high level of professional decorum. Council members build trust by not playing the “gotcha game” and strive to have a “no secrets, no surprises” approach as the operating norm. They respect the diversity of styles and perspectives among their colleagues and staff and are open to new ideas.

Effective Meetings. Open and public meetings are central to democratic decision-making. Exceptional councils master the art of effective meetings and:

  • Develop and adhere to meeting protocols and processes;
  • Spend time planning and organizing the agenda with the goal of conducting a more focused meeting;
  • Allocate the council’s time and energy appropriately (focused on its role and responsibilities) and address short- and long-term priorities; and
  • Honor the public’s participation and engagement by starting meetings on time and holding meetings at reasonable times.

For additional tips on effective public meetings, visit ILG’s Meeting Resource Center.

Accountability. Exceptional councils operate openly and ethically and work to engage residents in decisions affecting their community’s prosperity and well-being. To that end, exceptional councils consistently provide short- and long-term strategic direction and goals as well as budget, program and policy oversight. Council members hold themselves accountable for the council’s conduct, behavior and effectiveness. They establish clear priorities and goals and hold the city manager accountable for results. And they embrace accountability as a process and tool to calibrate ongoing efforts to address and meet policy and program objectives.

Continuous Personal Learning and Development. Governance is not intuitive, and individual cities’ policy and economic environments are ever-changing. Exceptional councils continually provide opportunities to build members’ knowledge, enhance their understanding of key issues, increase their awareness of best practices and sharpen their leadership and governance skills.

Kevin Duggan, a former city manager and senior advisor with Cal-ICMA, offers this advice to council members experiencing dysfunction on their council: “Assume everyone has the good of the community in mind, and engage respectfully to resolve misunderstandings and discuss differences in approaches.” For councils operating effectively or exceptionally, he cautions, “Don’t take it for granted. Celebrate your success, but continue reflecting on your council and your community. You are either striving to improve or slipping backward.”

Cal-ICMA Launches Survival Skills Project

In 2014, Cal-ICMA launched a project to determine the greatest challenges faced by city and county managers in California. This effort included a survey of all city and county managers in the state, followed by a series of focus group discussions designed to confirm the survey data and to brainstorm potential strategies to address the identified issues. Over 50 percent of managers responded to the survey, and 75 managers participated in one of eight focus groups. 

The information obtained from the survey and focus groups as well as recommended short and long term strategies was summarized in the July 2015 final report of the project, Challenges and Strategies:  Maximizing Success for City and County Managers in California.

After completing the report, Cal-ICMA convened a working group comprising representatives of Cal-ICMA, the League’s City Managers’ Department, League staff, Institute for Local Government (ILG) and the California City Management Foundation (CCMF). The group identified five initial implementation strategies that included:

  1. Development of effective governance attributes and model protocols for effective council-manager relations;
  2. Development of an online compendium of council-manager relations resources;
  3. Regional peer support and peer coaching through area manager groups;
  4. Identification/development of resources for first-time city managers; and
  5. Development of program content for specific league conferences/seminars.

With work underway on these strategies, the working group is assessing the project’s status and determining appropriate next steps in late 2017.  For more information on this project, visit

Resources and Training Opportunities

As part of this work and in conjunction with Cal-ICMA, ILG developed a resource center for city officials and staff. The resource center ( provides information and best practices on council-staff relations, resources for first-time administrators, peer support resources for managers, descriptions of roles and responsibilities and more.

In June 2017, ILG led a workshop at the League’s Mayors and Council Members’ Executive Forum titled “Exceptional Council for Exceptional Times: Creating a Governance Culture of Civility and Purpose.” The interactive session highlighted attributes of high-functioning councils and strategies for moving towards a more effective council. ILG will offer training on this topic again in 2018. For more information, contact Melissa Kuehne at

“Good governance sets the tone for the whole city,” says Shelly Masur, council member for Redwood City. “When city councils work well together to make decisions and lead, everyone benefits.”

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 and how each person approaches issues and their decision-making style. This can be accomplished at annual meetings or workshops throughout the year. When council members disagree, clear ground rules that establish norms of behavior and practice can help address potential conflict before it becomes a problem. It’s important to remember that trust is built around understanding and respect, not necessarily agreement.

Create a shared understanding of the city manager’s role and the council’s expectations to optimize the working relationships. This shared understanding is informed by local charter and ordinance provisions that provide the overall framework for the relationship. The council should make time to have conversations during retreats and or study sessions to define and/or reveal and refine its role and responsibilities. Because well-articulated roles of the city council and city management are critical to mutual success, having clear protocols helps avoid misunderstandings.

Set council priorities and strategic goals at an annual meeting. These goals and priorities serve as tools to guide the city manager and staff in focusing their efforts. This annual meeting provides time for the council to reflect on community priorities and offers an opportunity to discuss decorum and relationships between members and between the council and the city manager and staff.

Develop and adopt (with regular reviews and updates) guidelines for conducting meetings and making decisions. These governance protocols typically address meeting procedures (agenda preparation, how to put issues on the agenda, debate and voting procedures and civility). As part of a regular self-assessment, councils should evaluate their meetings and their effectiveness and adjust behavior and practices for better results.

Annually evaluate council and city manager performance toward achieving the city’s priorities and goals (consider making this part of an annual goal-setting meeting). The council should consider assessing its behavior and effectiveness as part of its annual self-assessment.

Seek out national, state and local professional growth and educational opportunities. Such opportunities can focus on the nuts and bolts of governing to help gain insights on key policy issues facing your city. In addition, city-conducted orientations for newly elected officials provide a good way to acclimate new members to the council’s norms and protocols as well as the budget and key policy issues.

This article appears in the December 2017 issue of Western City
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