COLUMN: Managing community complexity

The crucial role of the city manager is well-described in a new book

Through the halls, meeting rooms and offices of local government, a figure moves. And it’s not the ghost of a former mayor or disgruntled employee.

Sometimes this figure remains largely invisible and unknown to the public. Other times, she or he is prominent, with a strong public voice and presence.

Whatever the persona, this figure is a key actor in local government — the city manager or CAO (chief administrative officer). What does this person do, when not roaming around?

The B.C. Community Charter describes the CAO’s role as overall management of operations; ensuring implementation of council’s policies and programs; and providing advice and information to council.

My simplified view of how things should work is that elected people, following appropriate and meaningful public involvement, make plans and policies, set priorities and budgets. Ideally, they don’t get into discussing stop sign locations.

During the decision-making process, the CAO is there to provide information and guidance. Once Council gives direction, it’s up to the CAO to make it happen. That includes ensuring the right staff are in place, and that they understand where Council wants to go and are hopefully even keen about it.

Interestingly, the CAO is city council’s only direct hire, chosen by them. That in itself is a big task – getting the person with the right skills and personality, for the right price. The opposite process happens too. After a two-thirds vote of council, a CAO can be cleaning out their desk the next day.

I think most CAOs want to be neutral managers, able to work with any council. And some succeed. But sometimes a mayor and council lose confidence in the CAO, or a new council may want a different type of leadership. Or the CAO may be sliding too far into politics.

In my time on Nelson City Council, I worked with four managers, all very different. Two of them were let go immediately following elections. This is a well-known occupational hazard, but that doesn’t take away the sting or the disruption of one’s life.

I was excited recently to discover a new book called Serving with Pride in the Public Eye, by Randy Diehl. Randy worked for the City of Kamloops starting in 1989, first in planning and then as CAO for 11 years before retiring in 2012.

In a very readable style, Randy tells stories from his career. He shares what he learned as he worked to transform a dysfunctional organization where councillors followed staff with a stopwatch to see how they were spending their time, to an award-winning “Top 100 Organization.”

Randy is honest about his personal strivings as a public servant, seeking meaning and pride in his work. His book is full of respect and vision. It reveals a picture of a very human CAO as he determinedly creates a positive workplace built on good relationships — with council, managers, employees, unions and stakeholders. Randy offers a lot of great tips along the way.

One section I found particularly interesting, as a former councillor, was about fostering good relations between council and administration. Randy argues this is absolutely critical, and I agree. He also says it’s hard work. Every election can bring a new set of ‘bosses’ with different aspirations and knowledge of the job. New trusting relationships must be built.

Randy advises against developing friendships with council members. This can cause all sorts of problems. I think this is especially true for the ‘special relationship’ between the CAO and the mayor, which can get a wee bit too close.

CAOs are frequently objects of blame. If they’re too public, speaking on behalf of the City, people think they’re running the show (and by implication, council is blamed for being too pliant). Council members accuse CAO’s of providing bad advice when things go badly, or of frustrating their efforts to achieve campaign promises.

It’s a tough job. The CAO is an easy target, responsible for many relationships, projects and issues. And the workload is unrelenting.

I’m so pleased Randy wrote his book which, like my memoir, opens doors and windows to local government, based on real human experience and not governance theories or principles. I regret not having Randy’s book earlier! Read it, now that you can.

Donna Macdonald served 19 years on Nelson City Council until 2014. She is the author of Surviving City Hall, published in 2016.

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