The city manager is the chief executive officer in cities that operate under the council-manager form of government. With some exceptions that vary by each city’s charter, all city staffers are under the city manager’s line of supervision. At times, the city attorney and city secretary report directly to the city council. Even in these situations, the vast majority of staff are under the manager’s direction.
In the strong mayor form of government, the mayor is the city’s chief executive. The city manager position does not exist. The closest equivalent is deputy mayor. Even in this form of government, the mayor is still an elected official. The mayor may receive a full-time salary, but the mayor is still not really a public administrator in the traditional sense.
More than any other staff member, the city manager is responsible for operationalizing city council decisions. He or she also has the most influence on these decisions. Council members look to the city manager for guidance and expert opinion on issues facing the city. When the manager and council have a good relationship, the council rarely goes against the manager’s opinion.
The manager reports directly to the city council. It is one of the most challenging aspects of the job. If keeping one boss happy is difficult, try having seven or more.
Assistant city managers report to the city manager and supervise department heads. Assistant city manager positions are created when the city has too many department heads for the city manager to supervise directly. Assistant city managers allow the city manager to focus primarily on external issues while the assistant city managers focus primarily on internal issues.
Many cities group similar departments under one assistant city manager. For example, an assistant city manager who oversees the fire department will also oversee the police department. Similarly, an assistant city manager who oversees the planning department will oversee the public works department.
When a city has only one assistant city manager, that person may be called the deputy city manager. A deputy city manager position may also exist when the city manager wants to formally identify a number two person from among several assistant city managers.
The city attorney is the city’s chief legal advisor. The city attorney gets involved in any city issue that requires legal consultation. The city attorney position looks very different from city to city.
In some cases, the city attorney is not even a city staffer. Small cities tend to contract with an attorney or law firm to represent the city. Some firms specialize in local government law. These firms employ several attorneys who each represent a handful of cities, counties, and school districts.
When the city attorney is on staff, the position may report to the city manager, mayor or city council. Where the city attorney fits within the organization is most often spelled out in the city charter.
In smaller cities, the city attorney has no staff reporting to him or her except perhaps an administrative assistant. In larger cities, the city attorney supervises a legal department composed mostly of attorneys and legal secretaries.
The finance director oversees budgeting and accounting operations for the city. Like the city attorney, the finance director touches all departments within the city. Because of this broad scope of responsibility, the finance director often reports directly to the city manager rather than an assistant city manager.
The finance director consistently updates revenue and expense data and modifies projections as appropriate. The city manager relies on the finance director to ensure that the city will have enough money throughout the year to keep up with planned expenses.
The finance department works with other departments on large projects. No matter how great an idea may be, everyone has to know what it will cost.
The police chief is the most high-profile department head. Police departments deal with dicey situations that often become the lead story on the late local news and in the morning newspaper. Police chiefs work closely with the city public information officer. In larger cities, police departments have their own public information staff because of the volume of media requests and other public relations tasks.
Often the most intensely scrutinized situations a police chief must deal with are officer-involved shootings. As soon as information about the situation becomes public, the police chief must begin analyzing whether or not the officer acted appropriately. Officer-involved shootings often spark racial tensions in a community which only add to the pressure of doing a speedy and thorough investigation of the officer’s actions.
The police chief has staff working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Tragedy can strike at any time. At any moment, the police chief can get a phone call saying that one of his staff has been seriously injured or killed.
Like the police chief, the fire chief has a 24-hour staff whose members put their lives in danger to protect others. The fire department responds to medical emergencies, traffic accidents, natural disasters, and fires.
Fire departments have strong lines of authority and emergency management protocols. The highest ranking department member at an emergency situation takes control. Whenever the fire chief is on the scene, he or she assumes control of the emergency response.
The public works director oversees departments that many citizens think of when they think about the operations of city government. Of course, people first think of fire and police departments, but then they think about water, wastewater, streets and garbage collection. Public works is an umbrella under which many cities put their utility and maintenance departments.
The planning director helps the city council determine and communicate its vision of what the city will look like over time and makes sure that the daily decisions of the planning department are consistent with that vision. The planning department interprets zoning ordinances and applies them to plans that individual citizens and businesses bring to the department. The planning director recommends to the planning commission and city council whether or not one-time variances to zoning ordinances should be granted.
The economic development director is responsible for developing economic development policies for the city council to approve. These policies prescribe what circumstances warrant the city granting tax incentives to businesses and to what degree those incentives will be awarded.
When businesses want more than what city policy allows, the economic development director negotiates with the business on behalf of the city. Any tentative agreements that the economic development director makes must be approved by the city council to become final. Cities are reluctant to grant more than policy allows because the city does not want to let emotions override the carefully crafted decisions documented in policy.
The parks and recreation director oversees parks, recreation facilities and recreation programs operated by the city. Robust parks and recreation departments improve the quality of life for citizens. Parks and recreation departments receive some revenue from facility reservations and admittance fees, but they are heavily subsidized by tax revenue. The parks and recreation director is responsible for providing the best array of programs for the money allocated in the city budget.
Learn About the Job Titles in City Government
Find out What Role the Different Public Administrators Play
It takes many highly qualified professionals to make city government run smoothly. While the city council makes the big decisions and sets policy direction, smaller but still important decisions are made each day by city staffers. It would be impossible for a mayor or city council to micromanage a city’s staff, so elected officials must trust the professional judgment of the public administrators.
Here are some of the leadership positions you'll find in most city governments. These positions are filled by people whose full-time job is working for the city.