What Suffolk needs in a city manager

Published 8:36 pm Tuesday, August 4, 2015

By Roger Leonard

Well, we have seen the Suffolk on-line poll and three “listening-sessions” — the first of which was a fizzle and the other two lightly attended. Now comes the local lobbying of council members on what flavor of city manager we might enjoy this time around.

As usual in Suffolk, most of the citizens do not take any of this very seriously. I certainly don’t — and with good cause. I have been around and involved with Suffolk politics for many, many years, and I know that such events are almost always just for show.

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In my job as a senior federal planner, running one of HUD’s statewide planning and development offices, I get to see many city managers, administrators and mayors. I see the very best and the very worst of the lot. As such, I find these characteristics to be vital to a really good city manager:

  • The city manager must be a professional administrator and NOT a politician.
  • The city manager must be exemplary in all issues of trust, must be effective in managing the agenda, and must be a silent leader who puts others’ needs and those of the community first in all they do and advocate for. They must be good listeners, inspired speakers, and strategists, taking the long view.
  • City managers must make it clear that, while they work for the city council, they represent the needs of the community and its people first and foremost. They are the “super public servants” who enjoy public service and serving the best and highest interests of their communities, even if that is sometimes counter to their own beliefs.
  • In this day of so many challenges, city managers must be consummate negotiators who can craft compromise and avoid the outcomes in which the perfect stalls or kills the best. This means getting things done in the imperfect world of compromise and knowing how to make a deal, even when you really dislike someone or something attached to it.
  • Good city managers are well spoken with measured personalities, which clearly display good management skills. They are the first leaders everyone thinks of in crisis. They must directly inspire city staff and they do so by managing by example, not by demand.
  • Good city managers work to define the very best in us all. Functionally, they hold the experience to properly manage vital interests like economic development, job creation and growth, and they always have an eye on how the community grows and is maintained.

The key to getting this hire right is to find the individual with most of these traits, one who holds these fundamental commitments and has the ability to recognize where they need help. To this end, they must know how to ask for and how to define relevant need. They must be ready to supplement their own skill set by adding the right support staff, but they also must be generalists.

So the process must not be defined in a way to make any one individual already known the candidate of choice. Failure is usually caused by trying to pound a round peg (candidate) into a square-hole (job). That is exactly what council has done in the past, and it has often failed out of the gate.

We are coming off of a failed city manager. The question is: Will council do better this round?

Roger Leonard is from Suffolk. Email him at rogerflys@aol.com.