Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Managing To Do Something Dramatic In City Hall

This post was previously published as Memphis magazine’s City Journal column:

It’s hard to find a major U.S. city these days that isn’t experimenting with creative policies and programs that aren’t breathtaking in their scope.

It’s within this environment that mayors have emerged as America’s most inventive elected leaders.

They are becoming leaders for global warming with more than 500 of them signing on to the Kyoto Accords and others are reaching far beyond the borders of their cities to create regional agendas that include “complete streets” built for more than cars, light rail systems, place branding, sustainable growth, massive cultural investments and data-driven performance budgeting.

Back To Basics

Most of all, however, cities are working hard to get the basics right – better schools, safer neighborhoods and efficient public services.

At a time when national conversations on key issues regularly centers on the successes in American cities, Memphis is noticeably ignored. At a time when the chief aptitude of a successful mayor is as a salesperson, the candidates selling themselves for mayor are met with a noticeably unenthusiastic voting public.

Meanwhile, Memphis City Council races are doing just the opposite. Inspired by the chance to transform the legislative body with eight new members, the public appears excited for a fresh start unseen since the first Council took office in 1968.

Asking A Different Question

Emerging about the same time as the new city legislative body was the idea of consolidating city and county governments and it that continues today – despite two failed referendum votes and little prospect today for successfully merging the two local governments.

Consolidation is just the kind of innovation that could get Memphis some national attention for the kinds of dramatic action that’s putting other cities into the spotlight as progressive places. However, maybe Memphis has been too narrowly focused on a preconceived answer while the real question is how to create a more effective structure of local government.

When this is the question, there’s another possibility besides consolidation - changing the Mayor-Council form of government in Memphis to Council-City Manager.

Managing The City

It’s a form of local government more common than commonly known. In fact, in the past decade, it overtook the Mayor-Council form to become the most popular form of city government in the U.S. Today, roughly 60 percent of cities with population of more than 60,000 have Council-City Manager governments, including Dallas, San Jose, Boulder, San Diego, Kansas City, San Antonio, Sacramento, and Dayton.

In a 2002 report presented to the American Accounting Association by researchers from Texas A & M University and Auburn University said that “based on samples of large cities from the early 1980s and the mid-1990s, the findings support the perspective that the city manager cities substantially outperform mayor-council cities.”

The centerpiece of these cities is a professional public administrator hired by the Council to recommend a budget, develop programs, and manage the day-to-day operations of city departments and agencies. The Council sets the over-arching vision for the city, and the city manager then lays out a plan to accomplish it.

It’s Not A Job, It’s An Adventure

Because the city manager is not a politician, appointments of division directors and department heads are not based on political motivations, cronyism, or a political buddy system.

The creation of the CAO’s position in Memphis city government was a not completely successful experiment in bringing this level of professionalism to city management, but for every CAO success story, there are three stories of failure.

In its own way, city managers represent more than jobs, but the philosophy that a nonpolitical manager can bring a higher level of ethics and efficiency. It is the catechism taught and practiced in public administration schools that produce today’s city managers.

Less Ego, More Action

But appointing the city manager is just the first step to bringing more rationality to local government. With the city council in ascendancy and the city mayor more ceremonial, the Shelby County mayor can become the dominant political figure in the region, eliminating the confused looks that inevitably greet corporate leaders considering our community for investment.

But that’s not all. Without the need to fight over territory or political ego, the city manager could begin the substantive talks with the Shelby County Mayor to move services that benefit the entire county – like parks, libraries, museums, and arenas - to the larger county tax base.

This would lower the tax rate of Memphis taxpayers to something more in line with Germantown and Collierville, and finally, Memphians would not pay a disincentive to live within their city’s borders. In addition, the lower tax rate makes Memphis more attractive and competitive when compared to its suburban towns.

All of this is enough for Memphis to take its place in the top ranks of the U.S.’s most innovative cities, and to turn things around, that’s precisely where it has to be.


LeftWingCracker said...


This makes a lot of sense, and it would help to take cronyism out of government, which I suspect is why it would not be allowed to work here.

Given that there are too many jobs (not necessarily essential jobs, either) that would probably be eliminated under a City Manager, this would be fought tooth and nail.

I support the concept, though.

Jeramia said...

I bet we would be shocked by the number of jobs eliminated from City Hall by a city manager.

But I agree with LeftWing, things that make sense tend to be threatening to a lot of our city's officials (both elected and appointed).

Anonymous said...

i'm curios to know where you would rank the current mayor? do you think he would be/is a solid city manager?

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous,
City Managers across the country are by and large professionally trained individuals who pring professionalism to the job. That is the point; to de-politicize decision making.

Given that prerequisite for the position and that goal, the ranking of the current mayor would be 1 on a 1-10 scale.


Anonymous said...

thanks, george, for your attempt to answer my question. i'm well aware what a city manager is my wife is a member of icma, which is a professional association of city and county managers and administrators. not all, city managers are professionally trained for the job, some are cross overs from the private and healthcare sector. the mayor also has been an administrator for well over 25 years, so he is a professionally trained administrator.
i realize the mayor is an elected official. my question is a but for; but for his politics, do you think the current mayor would do well in the role of a city manager? in other words, given the duties and skill set of a city manager, would the current mayor be on your list of interviewees given his management record?

it seems many of his progressive presentations have been shot down by the political environment, e.g. consolidation.

many of his radical ideas such as the stadium, pyramid would be nullified because the vision of the city would come from the council. the city manager carries out the vision of the council; he would not have contract authority.

i say no, my wife thinks if herenton did not have to interact with the media that most memphians would approve of his management.

i'd like to know "smart city memphis" opinion.

also, your lead in with the statistic of council-city manager percentages is misleading, since the percentage has not changed in five years. you imply that it is a growing trend.

Anonymous said...

Dear anonymous,

I would disagree with the statement that the mayor is a professionally trained administrator. He is a professionally trained educator. As one who has been involved through a number of years in the training of prospective city managers, through MPA progrmas, and one who is very involved in education research today, I would not equate the two forms of training. Substantively they are very different. If, however, you desire to consider the experience as Superintendent as OJT in administration, I might agree.

However, I would want then to consider the record of the individual when he was in that role. If you were to be filling a position and interviewing for a city manager; it would seem clear that the "political" baggage of your nominee, the mayor, would present a number red flags to the hiring committee, you have already mentioned a few.

That said, I would love to here SCC weigh in on this as well.


Smart City Consulting said...


Basing our opinion on the present, we'd say that he could not be a city manager. While it is of course about a set of skills and talents as a manager, we could never get to those criteria because of the small matter of the personality and mode of operation needed to be effective in such a job. We don't think at this point in his career he could be successful in executing someone else's agenda nor do we have any evidence that he could be personally engaged to the degree that would be required for success in this job.

Smart City Consulting said...

Then again, if we thought he was capable of performing this assignment, we might never have written this post.

gatesofmemphis said...

Since the City Manager would be hired/fired and supervised by a political body, they would still be under political pressure in hiring, contracts, etc. Somewhere there would be a politician making the calls and the manager would have to be the most professional to not make unprofessional decisions (hire my nephew, not ticket my friend, approve a deal with a vendor who gives me Super Bowl tickets) when the calls come. Limiting the power of incumbent politicians with term limits and staggered terms could make that less of an issue.

Giving the executive manager 12 bosses who are closer to the citizens might make City Hall more responsive to neighborhoods and the grassroots.

Michael Roy Hollihan said...

I've long advocated for changing to a Manager-Council government as a remedy for the abuses of recent years. But the proposal to change would face withering attack from the large number of Memphians who would see it as an attack on Herenton. (Even though he's out of the equation now.)

As much merit as the idea has, I don't see it even getting out of the gate any time soon.

Smart City Consulting said...

Actually, Mike, we're not so sure that Mayor Herenton wouldn't actually come down in favor of this. After all, it solidifies his position in the history books for now and forever, and it's just the sort of unexpected position that it loves to take.

There was an outside chance of a Council makeup that would be receptive to this, but we don't see it now. Some are receptive to it, however.

It's something that could always be put to the Charter Commission, and while we wouldn't expect its passage if opposed by WWH, it would at least start the conversation, and around here, that's the key, because often it takes 20 years to affect the change being sought.

Unrelated: this is probably the only time in our lifetimes that consolidation could possibly get approved by the voters outside Memphis, because they'd have the chance to shoot WWH out of the saddle, but again, that one would surely prompt furor from his base.

Anonymous said...

I really wonder if anyone can manage our city government.

Anonymous said...

God help us that it is not the current County Mayor. Someday you should tell it like it is and expose his rhetoric administration for what it is. Talk about politicaldeals. He's the poster boy.

Anonymous said...

it seems we are speaking of two different "professionally trained" your definition seems to be one of coursework. i would count experience as an administrator as professionally trained, since the school system and government bear resemblance. although the two are different the learning curve would not be that great, since he's spent most of his career as an administrator rather than educator.
i would agree that the two, coursework and experience, are different but i wouldn't discount his experience so quickly.

smart city - although i agree with you, i'm surprised, that you would be quick to dismiss him. the history of and characters on the council would require that the city manager have a strong personality. i think the real minority in memphis - progressive thought - is the real reason we lack competitiveness with other cities.

any examples of large metros with term limits using this form of government?

good discussion

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous,

I agree with the difference you have outlined here (knowledge vs. experience) and believe it is a part of what I am talking about. However, I would agree with smart city tht the experience he has is political and not necessarily administrative nor managerial. Further, while being a good city manager requires a high degree of political acumen, the preponderance of the political approach only, and the blustery personality, would only be a hindrance rather than a positive for the current mayor to move to a City Manager role.

For the same reasons, while Michael Bloomberg would be a wonderful individual to be a new Mayor of Memmphis, I would not suggest for a moment he would be the best candidate for City Manager.


Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous: We may have missed your point, but Mayor Herenton himself would be the first person to admit that he's not been a great leader for the Council. As he's put it, he has no patience for their pettiness and games. Also, the mayor also acknowledges that he's not a hands-on kind of manager, and that's why the appointment of his CAO over the years has been the defining factor in whether he's been perceived as successful or not. And we agree with you about the lack of progressive thinking. To your point, the mayor has been a source of much progressive thinking over the years, but without the ability to mobilize support and get the ideas passed, they have been largely squandered opportunities.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous, we forgot to respond to your other question. We can do some research, but off the top of our head, Dallas, San Jose, San Diego, Kansas City and San Antonio have term limits for mayors and have a city manager form of government.

pandora said...

If I am blessed to live a long productive and fruitful life in Memphis Tn it will be my vow that there will never be a merger of ONLY Memphis' government in consolidation with the financially raped and broke County government of Shelby County. My Motto - all municipalities or no merger!

I further believe I am skillful enough to politically manipulate such an outcome.

Zippy the giver said...

Little Rock has a city mgr and a mayor and Little Rock is kicking Memphis' butt right now on growth and expansion. They also don't have a county mayor. That is dumb.