Qualities of a city manager

[The following was addressed to Bob Murray of Bob Murray & Associates, the recruitment firm seeking candidates to replace retiring City Manager Ken Frank.]

Dear Mr. Murray:

I missed the public meeting to discuss the desired qualities for our new city manager. I hope it's not too late to add my two cents. I am a retired public administrator (MPA) and I have worked in several cities in south Orange County, including Laguna Beach. I've been a classified employee, city clerk appointed by the city manager, and finally a city clerk appointed by the city council.

I know you have successfully placed city managers throughout California and you know each community has its own personality. As a prominent coastal community, arts colony, tourist destination, a town subject to natural disasters, and a highly involved public — Laguna Beach is in a class of its own.

My suggestions come from an insider's viewpoint. We know what the textbooks say but we also know that personality and politics shape management style. I have personally observed how management style promotes staff productivity, community trust and involvement in government, and strong working relationships with other agencies.

Please add these qualities to your list when searching for our new city manager:

Authoritative and assertive: The city manager walks a very fine line and must be tough enough to withstand the pressures created during apparent no-win situations or disasters while avoiding the tendency to become a policymaker. In short, the city manager works for the City Council (not the other way around) to implement the council's policy direction. (City council members also need to remember that staff works for the city manager.)

Delegate, delegate, delegate: City government thrives when city managers delegate responsibility to department directors who then manage their staff to produce results. In short, hire good people (Laguna Beach has an excellent staff) and let them work (resist micromanagement).

Encourage communication: A city manager's door should be open to staff and the council. Staff at all levels should feel comfortable (a trusting environment) in sharing "bad news." The council should be able to ask general questions directly of staff with staff understanding that questions probing into new policy or project management should be directed back to the city manager. Regular communication through monthly all-staff meetings about current projects, issues, and programs instills a team approach among staff members.

Develop core agency values: A city manager should encourage core values of creativity, communication, trust, and excellence in their staff. Staff members (at all levels) should be credited for excellence on a regular basis. Monthly all-staff meetings are an excellent vehicle for this. This is a great staff motivator.

Value customer service: A city manager (and city council) should place a very high value on customer service. No question, telephone, e-mail, or voice-mail goes unanswered (response within a day). Staff needs to help the public find a solution to their problem (not overwhelm them with regulations). If a staff member does not know the answer they should find another staff member who can help (don't just send the person to another counter or transfer the call).

All-staff meetings and valued customer response results in a "public sector Nordstrom." Imagine a park maintenance staff member directing an inquiring member of the public to get help with a water quality question. (It is doable.)

MEG MONAHAN lives in Laguna Beach.

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