What Councils Want from Managers.But Do Not Tell Them

Article excerpt

Often before election, elected officials have formed opinions and beliefs about managers and their staffs. Based on their attitudes about what government ought to do, elected officials may harbor perceptions that make working relationships difficult.

This article, based on personal research and experience, attempts to shed candid light on concerns and beliefs often held by the governing body (referred to as the council here) that interfere with the development of trust and meaningful partnership in governing.

As in any relationship, trust must be a resource from which cooperation may be derived. The following are seven unspoken assumptions that councils do not tell their managers.

#1 Managers hide Money.

Theme. Councilmembers generally believe that managers stash money away for various reasons. Rationalizations and tolerance for this activity seem to vary with how important the money issue is to that councilmember. Council wants to know how much discretionary money really is available.

Comments by council

* "The finances of our city so complex [that they are] not easily explainable to a nonfinancial person."

* "It's not really that he hides money; it's just not in plain sight. He's protecting us."

* "My city manager would not purposely hide money, some is just less visible."

* "The complexity of city budgets requires the various pockets and reserves. Why? So we won't all want our own program and will share more!"

* "My major job is to uncover where staff hides the money. Auditor role, or mole digging around."

* "Managers think they are Robin Hoods who are in a noble cause to rescue the funds from dishonest or bungling elected officials."

* "Every time I want money, I feel I have to go to Mother for permission."

* "What really upsets me is that he squirrels the money away without my agreement, then encourages me to spend what I don't understand."

* "My city manager does not mean to be dishonest. He keeps saying it's all in the budget document. Dishonesty of that kind is a public thing, but it's not really lying."

Discussion. Managers are not believed about money. It has become commonplace to talk in circular or vernacular terms of which only insiders understand the meaning. This practice may continue because of the belief that councils are nonfinancial or budget-ignorant. Some budgeters feel that public finance is so complex that the average person lacks the background to understand it, so they make it "staff-friendly." Clearly, the pervading feeling is that managers do not want to fund a certain program, so they hide the money.

The perceived practice of hiding money is taken by council crusaders as an excuse to "expose" the practice, whether it exists or not, simply because councilmembers believed that it does.

#2 Most managers have their own agendas.

Theme. Most councils assume that their managers have personal agendas that get played out over time. Where a council is divided or highly political, the council perceives the manager as putting forth his or her own agendas, thereby taking unfair advantage of the council's dilemmas.

Comments by council.

* "Why is the funding path so much easier when the manager agrees with me? Because it's his agenda."

* "If you watch who on the council a manager likes and socialize with, you can figure out [who has] similar agendas."

* "Our manager can get what she wants; it's just a matter of framing. She has a whole studio of frames."

* "Our manager is to controlling, manipulative."

* "His agenda is to keep everyone employed. Mine is to reduce government! It's why a strong mayor form of government is becoming popular."

* "Managers are preoccupied with staying in charge of us, rather than listening to our ideas."

* "My manager's agenda is zero. …