Notes on the City Manager-Council Relationship

The following is text of a response I sent to Keith Berner, regarding Takoma Park’s city issue of the month and a larger city issue —

There’s a certain elegance to a residency requirement that would apply only to a city-manager hire who is relocating from outside the region, yet I can nonetheless see even that requirement as deterring some otherwise-qualified applicants who would be a good fit for Takoma Park. I like the flexibility of a preference rather than the handcuffs imposed by a requirement.

Regarding council-staff relations, city charter 702 reads, “Except for the purpose of inquiry, the Council and its members shall deal with the administration solely through the City Manager and neither the Council nor any member thereof shall give orders to any subordinates of the City Manager, either publicly or privately.”  This provision is commonly accepted as meaning that council members may relay constituents’ requests directly to staff. If the request concerns anything significant, that would require a staff member’s doing any work outside the ordinary, I (and I believe other council members) copy or inform the city manager. I haven’t personally had or heard any complaints, directly from staff or via the city manager, that any council member has crossed the line from inquiries to orders. My own belief is that this provision is fine as-is.

Regarding council-city manager relations, I would like to see the city implement measurement-based performance management. That is, the council and CM jointly set goals and determine how progress would be measurement, the CM measures activities and reports periodically (in addition to using collected information for operational monitoring), and then we analyze and use what we learn to produce better service plans, budgets, and methods. Incentive pay for senior management, awarded by the city manager in accordance with jointly determined priorities and milestones, could and perhaps should be part of this approach.

So far as I can tell, the police department is the only city department that does significant performance measurement; measurement and reporting are part of police culture and typical practices. My understanding is that Barb Matthews had told a previous council that she would move another department toward measurement-based performance management, but whether she said that or not, she didn’t do it so far as I know. So incentive pay for the CM, for implementing performance management and strategic goals and for the departments’ achievements, could help as well and perhaps should be part of the next CM’s contract. (As an aside, I’d much rather provide incentive pay than a car allowance.)

Clearly there’s room for further discussion here, and an opportunity, in the city-manager selection process, to ensure that we’re positioned to make new, good stuff happen.

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