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Saginaw City Manager Darnell Earley Writes About
Council-Manager Form of Government

By Darnell Earley, ICMA-CM, MPA


Darnell Earley networking at the League's 2010 Convention in Dearborn.

Local governments across the country are struggling to deal with declining resources and the rising cost of service provision. Add to that the 7-to-10-digit budget deficits in which many states currently find themselves mired, and it is no wonder that these tough economic times are unrivaled by any other in U.S. history since the Great Depression. During the course of many discussions about these issues, an ongoing debate over form of government has been thrust front and center. In Detroit, for example, voters have impaneled a city charter review commission to examine, among other things, whether to maintain the city’s current strong mayor system or to consider adopting the council-manager form of government. I have met with commission members on two occasions to discuss the pros and cons of both forms.

Under the council-manager form of government, councilmembers and often the mayor are elected directly by the voters. If not directly elected, the mayor is selected by and from among the council. Together, these individuals hire a professionally trained, experienced city manager to oversee the day-to-day management activities of the municipality. As in the private sector model, the manager is the chief executive officer of the municipality and reports directly to the entire governing body, which serves as a policy making board of directors.

Under the strong mayor form, a popularly elected mayor becomes the chief executive officer, and that individual personally chooses key administration officials. It is unlikely that mayors are elected for their education and management skills, or for their experience in administering budgets, managing people, and assessing organizational service delivery. Instead, a mayor’s effectiveness generally depends upon the ability of the people working in the mayor’s office to carry out those functions.

Compare an inexperienced, politically appointed administrator to a professional manager who possesses the training, education, and experience required to oversee critical municipal functions. Couple that experience with accountability to an elected body that represents the entire municipality, and you have an opportunity to effect real change in the movement toward better governance.

Among Michigan’s 533 cities and villages, 240 (45 percent) are chartered under the council-manager form of government. The structure originated back in the early 1900s as an alternative to the political issues of the times (such as corruption) that were inherent in strong mayor form of government at the turn of the 20th century. Under council-manager government, the manager hires most of the municipality’s top level employees and prepares and submits the annual budget to the mayor and council.

It is interesting to note that in 2007, the city of Saginaw impaneled a charter commission to review its 76-year-old governing document. One of the measures recommended by that commission was to abandon the council-manager form of government in favor of the strong mayor form. The measure was rejected by voters by a 4-to-1 margin. Today, Saginaw continues to hold its own, as evidenced by accurate and timely financial reporting, transparency, and sound budgeting practices that have resulted in consistently balanced budgets, while grappling with the same challenges as other municipalities during the current fiscal crisis.

While there are variations within the structure, the council-manager form places the critical operations and financial matters in the hands of a professional manager who is trained to run a multi-million dollar operation. The manager recommends actions to the entire governing body for final approval. Although council-manager cities are not without governance challenges and obstacles, the decisions that managers make are generally devoid of political influence. City managers who are members of ICMA also adhere to a professional code of ethics that is vigorously enforced by the organization.

It is important to note that the council-manager form of government is flexible enough to meet the needs of just about every community; there is no “one size fits all” scenario. To address the need for increased political leadership, for example, today 67 percent of cities chartered under the council-manager form (Grand Rapids is one example) directly elect their mayor. The difference is that the mayor and council together recruit, select, and appoint a competent chief executive officer and empower that person to recommend the actions the local government should implement on a day-to-day basis. The value of empowering an individual with the requisite training and experience to oversee these critical management operations goes without saying.

At the same time, the council-manager system also enables elected officials to focus on what they do best—developing a community-wide vision for the municipality and establishing the policies required to realize that vision. Taken together, the responsibilities and authorities of the elected officials and those of the appointed manager complement one another and blend the components of a well-managed, professionally run municipality.

To summarize, while a community’s financial health and well-being may not rest solely on its form of government, by its nature, the council-manager form is the best structure for ensuring the appointment of a management professional who possesses the training and experience required to oversee the day-to-day operations of a municipality.

In my professional opinion, the municipalities in Michigan (and elsewhere) that operate under this form are more likely not only to survive the current economic crisis, but to emerge stronger and more efficient than those that do not. Municipal leaders may well want to take note, and consider this as a viable option.

Darnell Earley is immediate past-president of ICMA, the International City/County Management Association. A Michigan public administrator for more than 30 years, he is currently the city manager of Saginaw. Previously, he served as city administrator of Flint, as interim mayor of Flint, as deputy controller/budget director for Ingham County, and as township manager in Buena Vista Charter Township.



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