Government Job Profile: City Manager

Bridging the gap between local politics and public administration

Woodward Avenue, downtown Detroit
••• William Andrew / Getty Images

For those interested in local politics and who like to get things done, a career as a city manager may be a good choice. City managers must be in tune with elected officials and are responsible for directing the city's bureaucracy.

In the council-manager form of government, the city council is the governing body elected by the citizens. The powers of the mayor in this form of government vary from city to city; however, the mayor is not the chief executive.

The council hires a city manager to serve as the chief executive of the city government. With some exceptions that vary from city to city, the city manager oversees all city staff.

The city manager advises the council on their decisions but has no formal authority to vote on laws enacted by the council. Once laws or other decisions are made, the city manager is ultimately responsible for carrying out the council's wishes.

The Selection Process

City councils often hire headhunting firms to organize the candidate search when a city manager position is vacated. Council members often do not have the time or expertise to devote to conducting a thorough search.

Headhunters have established relationships with city managers in other towns. They will use these connections to directly approach city managers in other towns to apply for the job and also to ask for recommendations on candidates the headhunters do not know about.

The headhunting process does not preclude a city's department heads or assistant city managers from being selected, but it does mean that they will face more scrutiny than they would if the council had decided to promote the most qualified person already on staff.

Once the list of finalists is developed, the council has those finalists travel to the city for interviews. A complicating factor about being named a finalist is that the list of finalists is often reported by the local media. If a finalist is already a city manager in another town, it is only a matter of time before his or her current city council finds out he's applied elsewhere. It causes city managers to be very selective about which places they apply and diligent about notifying their current council members when they're named finalists.

The Education Required

City managers often come up through the various city departments; therefore, city managers have a wide range of educational backgrounds. For example, a city manager who is a former finance director would have a degree in accounting or finance. Similarly, a city manager who used to be a police chief would have a criminal justice background.

Many city managers go back to school mid-career to earn either a master of public administration degree or a certified public manager credential.

The Experience Required

The city manager is not an entry-level position. It requires significant management and local government experience. Before assuming their first city manager roles, people often have experience as an assistant city manager or department head. Candidates with prior city management experience are most likely to be hired for vacant city manager positions.

What the City Manager Does

As the top public administrator, the city manager bridges the gap between politics and administration. A city manager must always be cognizant of how actions he or she takes will be perceived by the individual city council members, citizens and city staff.

A city manager's most important constituency is the city council. A common joke in the city management profession is that all a city manager needs to do is know how to count to four. This joke plays off the fact that the most common number of city council members is seven. Four votes on a seven-member city council make a majority. If a city manager can consistently keep four of the seven members satisfied with the manager's performance, that manager has job security.

But again, this is a joke for a reason. City managers often do not have job security. City councils can be extremely fickle. Membership turns over, and one-issue candidates can easily get elected.

A city manager typically stays in a town for three to six years. If you do not want to move around every few years, a job as a city manager is not for you. When a city manager stays in a city for more than six years, other city managers are jealous.

The city manager deals with all personnel matters. Decisions to fire a city employee often come up for the city manager's approval. Even though the city manager has the authority to make termination decisions, a prudent city manager will seek the informal approval of the mayor and key council members as well as obtain a legal opinion from the city attorney. At the very least the manager should inform the council when an employee is terminated so that they don't find out about the situation in the media should the fired employee take the situation public.

City nepotism policies are often stricter for the city manager than they are for other staff because the city manager is above all employees in the chain of command.

The city manager interacts with other high-ranking public administrators in the community such as the county judge and school superintendent. The manager also acts as a liaison to regional and state governments.

What a City Manager Earns

A city manager's salary highly correlates with the city's size. Towns just large enough to afford a city manager may pay $40,000 per year whereas the largest cities in the country pay more than $200,000 per year.

Sometimes very small towns will pay a city manager much more than the size of the town would indicate. These cities often have an abnormally large tax base due to high property values.

City managers often have contracts that stipulate other types of compensation such as car allowances, housing allowances, and deferred compensation. Cities will often start their contract negotiation from what the previous city manager made.