Thursday, July 23, 2009

City Manager Stability

The other day my wife, Martha, asked me about City Manager turnover.  Her point was that when she was growing up in Janesville, Wisconsin, there was basically one city manager, Joe Lustig, who served for 25 years.

While Janesville is only 60,000 people, it is a lot like Lowell.  The official website says:
The City of Janesville operates under the Council-Manager form of government. The Janesville City Council has seven members, who are elected on a nonpartisan basis and represent the city as a whole. Council members serve two year, overlapping terms and are non-salaried.
Well, one thing is different.  Even though they meet weekly, the City Council members are not paid.

Being the "blow-in" that I am I have only been here for fifteen (15) years. In that time we have had Richard Johnson (resigned 24 August 1995), Brian Martin (resigned June 2000), John Cox (resigned 31 July 2006) and Bernie Lynch (Incumbent).  So, four City Managers in 15 years, vs 25 years for one City Manager.  This is about the value of continuity.  Long term planning works when there is some degree of continuity.  If Lowell is to proper in the future, we need long term planning.

Today someone told me that the City Manager of (dreaded) Cambridge has held the position for 24 years.  Turns out that City Manager Robert W Healy has been on the job for 28 years and a few days.

In the Air Force, Wing Commanders normally last about two years.  In the late 1960s the 36th Tactical Fighter Wing (Bitburg AB, FRG) had five during the three and a half years I was there.  During that time some wag made the comment that he was tired of OJTing Wing Commanders.  I am feeling the same way about City Managers.

Regards  —  Cliff

  Thanks to Dick Howe's blog and his stats on elections.
  On the Job Training


Kim said...

Great post Cliff. It really says something about our city council.

The New Englander said...


Also gets into the value of civilians vs. military in certain posts. You're always going to have military members that use 'civilian' as a four-letter word, and who will resent their mandated 40-hour workweeks, but you hit something spot-on -- corporate knowledge/corporate memory/continuity.

You always want to have that guy in the basement who's straight from Central Casting for a Tom Clancy movie. That guy is usually a civilian, and he knows EVERYTHING about a given subject because he's been doing it forever. If the wing commander, or strike group commander, is on a two or even three-year rotation, things get predictable:

1. New guy gets there, full of vim and vigor.
2. New guy wants to make lots of changes -- either to tighten everything up (if the predecessor was informal) or finally relax a bit to change the mood after the last guy
3. Soon he gets used to the way things are, stops wanting to change everything
4. A bit later he gets *short* because he's already getting ready for his next set of orders
5. Someone else comes in, and the cycle starts again..

The only people that outlast this are the civilians.

For a small city equivalent, you're going to really *matter* when you stick around for a long time and can outlast the vicissitudes of two- to three-year electoral cycles and mood swings..


Dick said...

Just to complete some of the historical dots, the Cambridge manager, Bob Healy, got his start in municipal politics in Lowell in 1970 when Dick Howe Sr hired him to be his mayoral assistant. When Jim Sullivan arrived as city manager, he hired Healy away from the mayor's office and made him assistant city manager. When Sullivan left to go back to the Cambridge manager's job, he brought Healy with him. At least one time subsequent to that, Healy was a candidate to be Lowell city manager but was never able to get the five votes needed. This is indeed a good topic, Cliff, so I'll do some more digging in the archives and do a supplemental post in the coming days, including the roster of those who were not hired to be city manager, a list that's in some ways more interesting than the names of those who were hired.

Joe S said...

The irony is, longevity is the name of the game in Lowell, not long term planning.

To wit:
Bud Caulfield, 22 years
Rita Mercier, 14 years
Armand Mercier, 12 years
Rodney Elliot, 12 years

Victoria said...

It may be no coincidence that Cambridge uses Choice Voting and is one of the best run local governments in the Commonwealth.