MML#5: Keeping Harmony between Local Officials and City Managers



MML#5:  Keeping Harmony between Local Officials and City Managers

(Crystal A. Proxmire, April 19, 2018)

Lansing, MI – Many people have the idea that the Mayor is the boss of a city.  But in reality, most cities, villages, and townships have a manager or administrator that oversees the services and implements the policies that impact residents and businesses.

“Council-manager form of government combines the strong political leadership of elected officials with the managerial expertise of a local government manager,” said Michigan Municipal League Executive Recruiter Kathie Grinziner as she addressed an audience of both at the recent MML Capital Conference.

But what happens when this dynamic becomes strained or becomes broken all together?

“Poor relationships lead to mixed messages and chaos…You get delays.  You abandon things, and you waste taxpayers’ money, and none of us want to be known for that,” Grinzinger said.

Conflicts can also lead to the loss of talent and a reputation that makes attracting quality administrators more difficult.  It can also impact the economic outlook of a city if businesses relocate or dysfunction hinders development.  It may also make voters leery of passing millages.

“Your community members want to see you as professionals and grown-ups.  They want to trust you,” she said.


Rifts can be obvious all-out melt downs, such as storming out of meetings, or nasty emails sent in moments of anger mixed with keyboard courage.  But more often, the signs are more subtle, and harder to discuss.

Among the signs of trouble are:

-Communication becomes more rare or stops

-Members stop spending time with each other or the Manager

-Eye contact becomes rare

-Conversations stop with others enter the room

-Team members bad-mouth each other

-Council members begin to meet in small groups behind Manager’s back

-Council stops or delays hard decisions

-Council doesn’t speak with one voice after the votes are taken

-Council stops relying on staff recommendations

-Council will not defend or support the action of Manager or staff

-Team members “throw each other under the bus” when tough decisions are made

The problems can be the result of miscommunication or misunderstanding. They can be the result of personality differences or malice.  Or they can be caused by simple naïveté.

An example shared was one that happens time and time again.  “After working on a street project for three years, this council person says, ‘I’m not an engineer, but…’ and begins to sketch out a ‘new vision’ that ends up delaying the project two more years,” she said.


Communication and setting clear expectations from the beginning are essential to keeping a positive working relationship.  Grinziner recommended goal-setting as a team, having a regular evaluations process even when things seem fine, and laying down ground rules for behavior.

Some examples of rules are that parties:

-will not surprise each other with hard questions in public

-will make decisions in a timely manner

-will make sure meetings are professional

-will not talk badly of each other

-will defend each other

One place that breakdowns happen when expectations are not clear.  For example, most everyone wants a Manager that is good at communicating.  But “good at communicating” means different things to each person. One example given was a manager who received perfect scores from all members of council on their evaluation in the area of communication, except for two.  One of those marked the Manager down for sending too many communications, the other marked them down for not sending enough.

“You have to be specific about your expectations,” Grinziner said.

Sometimes when there is public push-back, it’s easy for officials to put the blame on the Manager or staff.  Grand Ledge City Administrator Adam Smith was also part of the MML discussion.

“Mistakes will happen,” he said.  “The critical component is we will learn from them.  We need to create a culture where responsible risk taking exists.  To have talented employees we need you to support us even when there are mistakes.”

Apart from mistakes, there are times when members of the public dislike decisions being made.  Often anything that involves change, development or investment will cause some level of discontent.

Smith urged elected officials to maintain a broad perspective.

He used the example of a survey done by the Washington Post that found that 7% of adults believed that chocolate milk comes from brown cows.  “Statistically speaking, 70 of your residents in a community of 10,000 believe this,” he said. He clarified that he was not implying that unhappy residents are not uneducated, but that it’s just hard to reach everyone.  “Think about how challenging it is to convey complex information to the public with limited time and resources,” Smith said.

Like many Managers, Smith has seen many projects or decisions get derailed because of officials caving in to pressure from a person or small group in a community. 

“It seems like the weight of the world is on your shoulders.  But what’s happening is that room at that moment is only a small percentage of what’s going on in your community,” he said.  “A full city council chamber, even spilling into the hallway, is about 1% of your community.”

Smith stressed that listening to differing perspectives is an important part of the process, but that ultimately if a decision is good for the community officials should stand by it and support the Manager and staff whose expertise was part of the decision-making in the first place.

For Grinziner, healing a soured relationship means getting back to basics.  “What is the foundation [for the relationship]?” she asked.

In her experience, those basics are:

-Agreeing to move in the same direction

-Agreeing on whose job is whose

-Setting expectations of behavior

-Regularly checking in/doing evaluations

“Your primary responsibility is to improve the quality of life for your residents,” Grinziner said.  “If you are not holding that partnership together, if you’re not talking about things, if you’re not moving in the same direction, you won’t be able to do that.”


Assistant City Manager for Novi Victor Cardenas spoke about the International City/County Management Association.  The ICMA has 11,000 members in the United States and 33 other countries.  The group provides support and resources for Managers as well as others in municipal administration and students.

Additionally, the ICMA has ethics guidelines for Managers.  They also offer mentorship for those in the profession and those seeking to be.

For Managers or officials interested in improving relations, there is a book that is free to members called “Making it work: The Essentials of Council Manager Relations.” For more information visit their website

This article is the fifth in a series of articles about the Michigan Municipal League Capital conference held March 20-21, 2018. If you aren’t already on our list for Daily Headlines, please sign up HERE so you won’t miss any of this exciting and informative series! Find other MML related articles HERE.

For more on Michigan Municipal League, check out their website at

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