Who Runs this Town, Anyway?
By Gary Howe | Aug. 31, 2019
If an alien came to your hometown and said, "Take me to your leader," who would you ring up? On TV and in the movies, the mayor greets important visitors and re-opens beaches after shark attacks. In real life, fewer than one-third of U.S. cities, towns, and villages use this kind of a "strong mayor" system. In New York, you'd need to pull Mayor Bill de Blasio off the presidential campaign trail to greet your alien. In northern Michigan cities, villages, and towns, you'd take your new friend to meet the city manager.
Most of us remain blissfully unaware of how decisions are made in the places where we live. Then one day we want a sidewalk added on our child's way to school, or we need to turn a stand-alone garage into a home for our mother-in-law. And suddenly, it matters a whole lot how our local government works.
The way local governments function also matters by law. Local governments are incorporated entities, responsible for their actions, assets, and liabilities. Citizens and the representatives they elect come and go, but The City or The Village is on the hook for decisions made on its behalf. When a local government like The City of Flint makes decisions about things like its water infrastructure, the consequences can be profound.
Local governments in the United States come in two main varieties. The mayor-council form of government favored by popular culture is most often used in large cities. The people elect a mayor, who generally runs as a Republican or Democrat. Politics are front and center, and the elected mayor works full-time and serves as the chief administrator.
Most of northern Michigan and over half of local governments in the United States use the council-manager form of government instead. In this model, the people elect council members (sometimes the word “commission” is used instead of “council”), and the council functions like a board of directors does in the private sector. And just like a board of directors, the council sets policy, oversees budgets, and hires a manager to run the organization. The mayor in this system is typically chosen by the council, although the seat may also be elected. The mayor’s role remains equal to that of fellow commissioners when it comes to counting votes. Although council-manager systems can be slow to change, they have the advantage of buffering the day-to-day operations away from politics.
City managers do what mayors do on TV — just without the political persona. Ideally, they bring with them years of training in public management and experience in managing complex organizations to help them effectively oversee projects, programs, and policies on behalf of the governing council. They make sure the city machine runs smoothly and that broken things get fixed, and they ensure that the long-term needs of the organization are being addressed.
One of their most important jobs is to prepare the annual budget and present it to the council for approval. They also hire staff, negotiate on the local government’s behalf, and implement the policies set by the council by integrating them into the daily workings of the organization.
They also advise the council, and this might be the most difficult part of the city manager's job. Most issues that come before city councils are nuts and bolts, but sometimes the council is called upon to set controversial policy. At such times, the city manager needs to carefully and judicially set the stage for a healthy discussion of the issues and possible alternatives involved.
The manager's job in these situations is to present complete, objective, apolitical information, along with a professional opinion. The latter can at times be construed as political. If they do this job well, the council will be informed enough to engage in a healthy debate and prepared to call for a vote. A manager is best evaluated on whether the council has enough information to make an informed decision. Diverse opinions are expected from council members, so split votes are not a sign of failure. Facts and data are rarely enough — mutual trust is also required. If trust frays or dissipates, expect road bumps ahead.
The health and viability of the incorporated entity rely on the elected body and manager functioning as a team. Elected officials are the representative voices of the citizens who provide oversight and due diligence. The manager balances the needs of all city departments and meets myriad legal and budgetary requirements as they address the objectives of an ever-changing elected body.
This Nov. 5, northern Michigan residents will elect fellow citizens to serve as our policy-making representatives. As we review our ballot options this fall, it's important to remember that we aren’t electing administrators. We are electing neighbors whose jobs as elected officials are limited by design.
Our elected officials will play a critical role in guiding policies that will have an enormous impact on our communities. If they do their jobs well, they will bring appreciation and understanding for the staff who choose a career where credit goes to someone else when the job is done. Because in reality, the successes and failures of local governments in our region come down to the hired help — and in most villages and cities, the buck stops with the city or village manager. They are the ones who run our towns.
Gary L Howe is a freelance writer, photographer, and former city commissioner of a small northern Michigan town. He is also the advocacy director at Norte.