Building a city manager

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 20, 2005

You don’t just become one. It takes years and that means holding a somewhat lesser position long enough to get the feet sopping wet and learn the ropes by observing every move of your immediate superior…especially if he or she is a city manager. Our previous boss, a very likable man who knew when to quit, groomed our current city manager…not in the sense that you groom a horse, dog, cat, or any other type of show animal, our current manager looks good at all times. Especially during ceremonial acts of ribbon cutting or presenting laudatory speeches on Downtown Suffolk progress.

You will recall that our astute council spent many thousands of dollars on a nationwide search for a replacement city manager. Was there some question about appointing our assistant manager to the top job, or was it just an expensive ploy by council to distract us, to prevent us from thinking they knew all the time they would move him into the slot? Or was he the best available in the entire country? It’s apparent Myles Standish had prepared Mr. Herbert well and expected him to carry out the &uot;plans.&uot; Myles had &uot;groomed&uot; him by seeing that he met the right people. And who are the right people?

Of course I can only guess at this but how about &uot;old Suffolk money? There is plenty of it around, handed down from one generation to the next. Money often means power, and certainly influence. You wouldn’t want the &uot;upper class&uot; dissatisfied with any particular move on your part as city manager. And let’s not forget the &uot;good old boys,&uot; they expect to be solicited for advice. Then there are the politicians at all levels, past and present. Wise managers get to know them, seek their counsel, and learn what’s coming down the political pike. There is a group known as &uot;community leaders,&uot; important men and women professionals with higher than usual positions in well known firms: bankers, lawyers, doctors, (and dentists) school officials, etc. All these citizens want the best and can afford the best. They can be counted on to back any and all city enhancements. They, especially, want to be proud of their city, their heritage, position, and inheritance. Where else but Suffolk can they achieve fame and admiration?

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Probably more important than any mentioned above would be the wives of men of power and influence. They have the time, the money, and a need for cultural pursuits. Someone must attend to the history of a city, as far back in time as significant supporting artifacts can be found and collected. These are the folks who create historical museums, art shows; stage plays, libraries, reading clubs, music study, interpretation of poetry, etc., and they will be rewarded with a city financed cultural center. You are buying it.

Then there is a council to deal with on some occasions, to make things legal and acceptable to citizens in the various boroughs. These &uot;leaders&uot; sometimes represent far flung areas, not always affluent, whose citizens have pretty much the same desires as those who reside within the central city but have learned to expect less because of a well known and practiced theory known as the &uot;spider web theory.&uot; Most spider webs have a middle, or center spot where the spider holds sway. Most everything important is concentrated here. The farther out you go, however, the less there is, just enough so it can be said it is part of the web. City managers know about these often-barren areas but those who influence him or her are usually not located too far from center. Council members have succumbed this idea and adjusted, believing the manager knows best. One could also apply the &uot;squeaking wheel&uot; theory. Everyone knows the spokes and rim do not squeak…it is always the hub that gets the grease.

When citizen opinion is allowed (a few minutes only) at open public council meetings a well-trained city manager is wise to &uot;man the phones&uot; to make certain the right, supporting people attend. And having downtown developers speak for the inflated city budget, while other developers, who pump out homes in the rural area, are to be castigated as responsible for city financial ills. Managers seek well-known city personalities, those who will make lofty supporting speeches on any occasion, and make them with a straight face…and fill marinas with big boats for a day.

A good city manager knows better than to fool around with the School Superintendent’s desires for a major portion of the city budget. Never kick a cow chip on a hot day. It’s not the manager or council’s job to scrutinize the superintendent’s insisted need for extra millions, that’s what the school board members are supposed to do, let them take the heat. Citizens really unhappy with the productivity or end results of our school system are many, and should meet with Dr. Liverman to beat their chest, not in the council chambers. The Monday night budget workshop was ludicrous with Mr. Brown speaking in tongues and only Johnson attempting a line item veto. They all could have stayed home.

So there you have it. We have a city manager that can close his ears to other’s pain, buffalo the council and charge ahead with his plans for a greater Suffolk. Our manager is a well-trained CEO with much-to-gain cheering fans. If he lets our weak council get away with a few cents decrease in the tax rate you can bet he planned on doing that from the very beginning.

Robert Pocklington is a regular columnist for the Suffolk News-Herald. E-mail him at