Big Hole At The Hall

Regina’s city manager is retiring. Who cares? You should.

CITY by Paul Dechene

puppet-pencil

The news dropped in July that city manager, Glen Davies, will be retiring from his role as Regina’s top administrator as of Nov. 1. It’s a position Davies has held for nine years.

According to Mayor Michael Fougere, the city is in the early stages of finding a new Glen Davies. They’ve hired an outside consultant to lead the search. A sub-committee has been struck consisting of members of council and administration that will oversee the process. And soon, the consultants will be meeting with community groups to hear what their priorities for a city manager are.

Which groups? Fougere says it’s too soon to say. But regardless, it means there will be some level of public input into the process.

And that means it’s a good time to consider what a city manager is and think about what we want in a new one.

What’s A City Manager?

Laura Pfeifer is a name that’s probably familiar to many Prairie Dog readers. I wanted to talk to her about city managers because she’s one of the brains behind Regina Urban Ecology; that blog is pretty quiet now but a few years ago it was the best source for insightful musings on Regina’s “urban-ness”. Since starting that up, she’s moved away and graduated from McGill’s school of urban planning and is now working as a planner with the City of Toronto.

She describes a city manager as a city’s “big boss of the non-political staff.”

“Their job is basically to run the public service,” says Pfeifer. “They’re responsible for the day-to-day operations of the municipality, coordinating the work of different city divisions, evaluating how well the city is providing services. They prepare the city budget and make sure there’s leadership and proper management of money so the city can function,” she says.

I also spoke to Mayor Fougere about the role of city managers and he notes that, along with the city clerk and the city solicitor, the city manager is one of only three officials that council appoints.

“[Council passes] policy, we provide direction on policy — including budgets and programs and services — and the city manager’s responsibility is to implement that,” says Fougere. “And they hire staff to ensure the objectives of council, either by budget or by strategic plan or the Official Community Plan, for example, is done. And he or she is held accountable for performance every year.

“The city manager ultimately takes direction from a vote of council, not from a mayor or councillor who may want something. It’s done by what council reflects in its motions,” says Fougere.

That said, a city manager still wields considerable power within a municipality. They have a lot of influence over the budget process; and, as the primary gatekeeper between council and staff, the city manager will have a lot of control over how information and advice is shared with a city’s political arm, and over how council’s directives to staff are prioritized and resourced within the administration.

Or, as a 1999 paper from the American Review of Public Administration titled, “The Role Of City Managers,” puts it:

“…politics and administration are messily entwined. This point is illustrated by recent research showing that city managers are actively involved in policymaking and political processes such as brokering council and community interests.”*

In other words, it would be naive to dismiss a city manager as a mere pencil-pusher and a tool of city council. That said, it’d also be paranoid to call them the secret puppet master behind the throne.

The truth is a good city manager is probably somewhere in the middle: respectful of council’s directives but also willing to act autonomously.

So part pencil pusher, part puppet master.

What Makes A Good City Manager?

In trying to wrap my head around the qualities that make up a good city manager, I turned that pencil pusher/puppet master continuum into a graph by adding another axis and labelling it, “Leadership style.” On one end, I wrote, “Visionary”: the kind of manager who brings radical, innovative approaches to bear on the problems they face. On the other end, I wrote, “Pragmatist”: the kind of manager who powers through without flash and fancy buzzwords but regardless of the financial constraints gets your damn potholes fixed.

I asked Pfeifer which end of that continuum she prefers.

“On the artificial spectrum you’ve created, I’d say I lean towards the visionary a bit more,” she says. “But not at the expense of the other one, because a smart visionary also considers the numbers and considers how things are feasible and makes sure they can happen.

“It’s more than just coming up with cool ideas. It’s making sure that it can work.”

I didn’t present Mayor Fougere with my graph concept but I did ask him what he personally wanted from a city manager.

“My desire for a city manager is based on consensus with city council. I think generally we see the world the same way in terms of a city manager. But certainly a strong administrator that can help formulate, by way of action plans, the decisions and policies of council. And one who’s a leader, involved in the community, [and] has a vision that shares the vision of council.

“But what’s key is a strong administrator that can continue to deal with some issues in our city, which are good issues of growth and expansion, and how we handle that,” says Fougere.

So I’ve spoken with one urban planning obsessive and one municipal politician about what they want from a city manager. What do you want in a city manager? Pfeifer suggests tweeting your thoughts to @CityofRegina with the hashtag #myyqrcitymgr.

And if you want to delve deeper into the role of a city manager, how city administrations work and why being involved in all this is important, I turned my conversation with Laura Pfeifer into three 20 minute podcasts. You can find them at soundcloud.com/pauldechene.

* “The Role Of City Managers: Are They Principals, Agents, or Both?” by Sally Coleman Selden, Gene A. Brewer, Jeffrey L. Brudney, in the June 1999 American Review Of Public Administration.

2015-09-17

One thought on “Big Hole At The Hall”

  1. One small note – I’m actually not working as a planner with the City of Toronto, though the work I do is planning related :) I’m actually a Project Lead in Pedestrian Projects – small distinction but thought I’d mention it!

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