September 14, 2000

Eldon Fields Lecture about Professionalism in Council-Manager Government


  1. Summarize Svara as talking about roles that are not as distinct as they once were and Frederickson as showing that the "adapted" city is much more common than we think. I want to talk about the consequences of their comments.
  2. Begin with observations about the "council-manager recognition" task force
    1. Council-manager government is the best form of government. In actuality, I think that this meant it was the form in which professionalism could flourish best.
    2. Related to this is the observation that council-manager government defined by many managers in terms of managerial prerogatives with little attention to structured formal relationship between council and mayor.
      1. As long as the prerogatives of the manager were maintained, the structural relationship between the mayor and council was not very important in terms of the definition of council-manager government. This is reflected in ICMA's recognition criteria.
  3. In actuality, defending council-manager government has become a challenging task as the structures of strong mayor and council-manager cities have come closer, as Prof. Frederickson has pointed out, and as the roles of elected officials and staff have become less distinct, as Prof. Svara has pointed out.
  4. Instead of acknowledging and trying to understand the forces that are bringing about these changes, the response of many is defend council-manager government even more strongly. But what does that mean? In many cases, it means a fear that these changes will have a negative affect on the city manager's prerogatives.
    1. For the members, council-manager government has come to symbolize respect for professionalism.
    2. Are the forces that are bringing about changes in form of government intended to undermine professionalism? In some cases yes, but in the most publicized cases like Cincinnati, Oakland, and Kansas City, the answer is NO.
      1. Some years ago, I did a study of charter reform in Dallas, and there were a lot of changes people wanted, but they didn't want to sacrifice professionalism.
    3. What is behind the changes away from a traditional definition of council manager government in larger cities, especially. I think there are two forces that are embattled and in conflict
      1. The desire for more representation on councils in communities that have become increasingly diverse.
      2. At the same time, the desire for political focus and leadership in these same communities.
    4. The challenge in these cities is that there are too many people who can say "no" and not enough who can say "yes." In short, if there is one issue that plagues big city governance, it is the ineffectiveness of city councils to get anything done as they become increasingly diverse politically. The response of people frustrated by fragmented politics that fails to address big problems is to seek a solution in a stronger mayoral role.
    5. This is a fundamental issue of governance that must be addressed for anyone who wants to enter discussions about charter reform. If the defense of council-manager government does not deal with this issue, it will be seen either as irrelevant or worse, as the "enemy."
  5. We are in a very paradoxical time. As Herbert Kaufman reminded us years ago, citizens want:
    1. representation
    2. focused political leadership, and
    3. professionalism
    4. And as history has shown us, you cannot maximize each of these values at the same time
  6. A defense of council-manager government that focuses on professionalism alone, is an inadequate response to the problems people see facing our biggest cities.
    1. As Eric Anderson, City Manager of Des Moines, reminded me some time ago, "Council-manager government defeated the forces of corruption some time ago. We won that battle." I would add, "Now we have to rearm ourselves. The challenges that council-manager government was so good at overcoming, are no longer the primary challenges."
  7. Where to we head?
    1. Go back to the beginning and focus on the values that brought you to this profession and that bring the three of us here as your allies. These are the same values that you share with your predecessors. In times of turmoil, values offer stability. Council-manager government was seen as a way of expressing certain values. Many of these values are captured in Prof. Frederickson's most recent book, The Spirit of Public Administration.
      1. Good government is government where:
        1. Citizens are invested in the public good
        2. Where elected officials see themselves working together and in partnership with professional staff
        3. Government is seen as a positive force that can deal effectively and in a timely fashion with important problems
        4. Where public services are provided honestly, efficiently, and equitably
        5. Where government is responsive to more than members of political machines
        6. And perhaps most importantly to all of us here, where public service is seen as a virtue