Academic journal article Public Administration Review

The Shifting Boundary between Elected Officials and City Managers in Large Council-Manager Cities

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

The Shifting Boundary between Elected Officials and City Managers in Large Council-Manager Cities

Article excerpt

Council-manager governments in the United States have been an important venue for observing the general relationship between politics and administration. Although the roles of the mayor and council members, on the one hand, and the city manager and staff, on the other, have sometimes been viewed as strictly separate, officials have blended democracy and professionalism in ways that maintain distinct but shared roles. It is possible, however, that changing conditions in local government may create pressures that alter official roles and the relative contributions of officials. This is particularly likely in large cities about which the question has perennially been asked whether the council-manager form of government is viable. Although the council-manager form has been most commonly used in moderately small to moderately large cities, only in recent decades have many cities that use council-manager government grown into "large" cities.(1) Now over two-fifths of cities exceeding 200,000 in population use the council-manager form. This study focuses on these 31 cities.(2) The group includes five cities at or near the million population mark--Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, and San Jose. All of these as well as 23 of the other 26 are sunbelt cities. Although the sunbelt has been viewed as relatively placid and homogeneous, its cities have become ever more diverse places with intense interest group politics (Ehrenhalt, 1991; Benest, 1991).

Determining whether roles are shifting presumes norms against which to measure current attitudes and behavior. As a starting point, we will presume that elected officials set broad goals and ultimately approve most policy decisions, oversee program accomplishment, and appraise the city manager's performance but refrain from direct involvement in implementation and service delivery or in specific management decisions. City managers advise the council on the city's direction, propose policies, and handle implementation and organizational management.

Empirical research has shown that officials generally fill these roles in a coordinated way and, as cause and consequence of coordination, maintain a positive relationship. The question to be explored is whether these characteristics are changing and whether the conceptual model needs to be revised in large cities where one finds a high level of political activity that may strain the coordination of roles and cooperative relationship among officials.

Changing Roles and Relationships in Large. Council-Manager Cities

It has long been presumed that the council-manager form of government faces special challenges in large cities,(3) and there are several reasons to expect unique circumstances in such cities. They are more heterogeneous, and the media magnify political affairs. The problems large cities face tend to more complex, more interrelated, and more difficult to handle. In general, the political environment of the large city is highly charged. Some argue that the council-manager form is not well suited to manage conflict (Banfield and Wilson, 1963) and that a strong elected executive is needed in such cities (Gurwitt, 1993, versus Blodgett, 1994). As a consequence, relationships may be strained and the coordinated division of roles may break down in large council-manager cities.

These expectations have never been tested in systematic research on the performance of council-manager government in large cities. To fill this gap, a questionnaire was distributed to the mayor and council members and to the city manager, deputy and assistant city managers, and the department heads in Finance, Public Works, and Police in the large council-manager cities.(4) Initial mailings were sent in 1995 with follow-up requests in early 1996. For council members, it is possible to compare results with responses in a 1989 national survey of elected officials in cities over 200,000 in population.(5) Some important comparisons can also be made with the attitudes of council members and administrators from six moderately large council-manager cities who were interviewed in 1985 (from Svara, 1990). …

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