Looking back to help managers move forward
Local government professionals do not always have the opportunity for a do-over on the job. Managers learn from their mistakes, often reading about them in print and online websites, and vow to do better next time.
An important part of being a professional is to mentor others and to help them avoid the mistakes made by their predecessors. As a retired city manager who now serves as a visiting instructor of public administration, I have looked back at some of the more practical issues that happened during my management career.
Here I offer insights to what I learned so others might benefit from my experiences. I also want to include how I could have improved my decision-making processes, as well as my relationship with elected officials.
This review involves three major areas: taking the advice of the city or county attorney, dealing with council conflict, and managing employee relations. I also offer a brief synopsis of some things I got right while on the job.
THE LEGAL REALM
City attorneys are an integral part of the local government management team, yet their presence is not often discussed in management seminars or academic literature. I found attorneys I worked with to be helpful for several reasons.
First, they are removed from the day-to-day operations of a local government and thus, can be removed from the daily frictions that might occur between managers and elected officials or managers and staff. Also, based on their training, attorneys are often more detached from the emotional aspects of arguments that may surface in a local government.
In the legal analysis by an attorney, something is legal or it is not and meets statutory requirements of an ordinance or it does not. A calm head in a heated debate is always welcome, especially when the person offers insight and clear guidance based on facts, not emotion.
Several times in my tenure as manager, input from the city attorney was welcome and usually spot-on. Unfortunately, sometimes I failed to heed that advice, which led to trouble. On one occasion, I received advice from the city’s labor attorney regarding termination of a city employee that had occurred the year before.
The attorney suggested that due to the length of time since the termination and the cloudy issues of the matter that we let the termination stand and move on. After we had discussed the issue, I decided it was important to know the facts of the termination. Reopening the case to review resulted in disruption, recriminations back and forth, a lawsuit, and eventually, settlement of damages. All of which would not have occurred had I followed the attorney’s advice.
During a controversial communitywide debate, the city attorney came to my defense and rescue—and that of council—on more than one occasion. We were hearing charges from residents that a city ordinance was not followed and that staff failed to bring it up (which did happen) and that councilmembers failed to follow its tenets (which they did not).
It was the legal interpretation from the city attorney that cleared the air and resolved the issue based on her finding that council’s legislative powers extended further than the limits of the ordinance in question. The attorney was able to diffuse a difficult situation based on her knowledge of the law and espousing facts, not mere opinions.
Conflict in local government management is inherent, and life in local government often is fraught with conflict and turbulence. Many times managers are the target of confrontation and conflict from an elected official unhappy with how a situation was handled or simply unhappy with that particular manager.
Too much conflict can result in a manager moving on to a new community. There are methods, however, to diffuse situations, to lessen conflict, and to resolve professional differences between managers and elected officials.
One thing I would do differently in a confrontational relationship with an elected official is to lower my own level of hostility. It is difficult to have an argument alone, and when only one person is directly antagonistic, the hostility level should decline.
This is not to say managers should not defend themselves, but taking the rhetoric down a notch helps lessen the tension. Managers are better suited to seek middle ground with obstinate councilmembers rather than try to match them head-to-head.
The best advice is to try to discuss the problem with the elected official one-on-one, in the privacy of one’s office if possible. If not, it may be helpful to bring in a third party to facilitate the conflict and work to build a more positive relationship. In some local governments, the mayor (if it will not violate sunshine laws) may be useful as a mediator. Others might look to the outside for a neutral third party.
Conflict is another arena where an attorney can be helpful. City attorneys are schooled in mediation, and with that training, may be able to work to lessen discord and help remind both parties of the different roles of their positions, sometimes a major area of concern and misunderstanding.
While managers have been educated that the dichotomy in public administration is clear-cut, the roles of administration and politics do blur and carry over into each domain. Several times, my community’s attorney sat in on a meeting simply to help keep the discussion going in the correct direction.
It is important for managers to keep conflict under control. First, conflict drains energy away from the true mission of the local government: providing services to its residents and meeting their needs. Conflict can become center stage and draw others into it, including elected officials, staff, and residents.
Conflict can also draw the media’s attention, which might embellish it and help keep the feud going. Another important tip to managers: Be extremely careful of comments made to members of the press about an elected official.
A comment made in jest or seemingly innocuously looks and reads more sinister on the front page of a newspaper story or a blog. It looks even worse when it is drawn out of a story and published in large, boldface type beside your photo.
When all else fails, outside mediation or hiring a facilitator can be helpful. My city went this route when workshops were held to resolve issues between the council and the manager. There were differences of opinion on managing departments and council’s role in day-to-day activities.
An outside facilitator, himself a former city manager, helped to clear the air, review the city charter, and give all members of the leadership team—including the council, manager, and mayor—time to discuss their roles, perceptions, and methods to govern effectively. It was definitely a successful exercise.
There are two ways that managers are hired: They can be promoted from within or hired from outside an organization. Both methods can cause the manager problems once he or she is in place.
For the manager hired from within, there can be relationship issues that must be rearranged and resolved. Once one of the gang of department heads down the hall, the new manager must find a way to separate from the crowd, yet maintain a positive working relationship.
As a manager who was hired from within, I struggled to balance the differences and sometimes erred on the friendship side over the manager side. It made dealing with personnel issues more difficult, including disciplinary actions or terminations.
For the new manager hired from the outside, relationship issues are different. The new manager must become familiar with various departments and their managers and at the same time, learn who is supportive and willing to work together and who may be the type to attempt to get into the manager’s good graces on superficial terms.
Often, a manager who previously worked for another community has an easier time with disciplinary issues because he or she does not have the personal associations that may hamper a manager who has a longer and perhaps more personal history with an organization.
Terminating a department manager is perhaps among the most difficult tasks a manager must face. Frequently, higher-level terminations receive press coverage, input from elected officials, and, in the case of a police or fire chief, much scrutiny from employees in the specific departments, especially if those departments are unionized.
SOME PRACTICAL ADVICE
Here are simple tips that can help you be a successful manager:
Return telephone calls and e-mails. This may be a no-brainer, but managers can fall down in this regard. Another part of this issue is that phone calls and e-mails can come directly to the manager’s phone or computer, bypassing an administrative assistant.
Without that memo slip from an assistant, it is sometimes difficult to remember to write down a message or to respond to other correspondence. It is an important aspect of the job because residents, elected officials, and local business members will remember if you called them back or not.
Be involved in your community. If Main Street is hosting an event downtown, be there in support. Provide city support as well with regard to offering barricades, extra trash barrels, and city streets or parks staff to help if necessary. Follow the same tactics with other community organizations. Being visible is a great way to support the community, meet citizens, and be available for questions or comments. It also helps support elected officials, many of whom may have community associations as their pet projects.
Talk to people who are downtown, at the shopping mall, or at the grocery store; host a coffee and invite residents to attend; or join in the local 5K run. Public managers are just that—public—and it is an important facet of the job of a local government manager. It’s why we do what we do.