City Manager on Hot Seat in Kansas City
Did you know that Kansas City is one of the largest cities in the United States that has a city manager and makes use of the council-manager form of local government? (I did, but I get paid to know things like this.) The Kansas City Star is reporting that Mayor Funkhouser has chosen not to renew the contract of City Manager Wayne Cauthen. Now, I am not going to touch the politics of the situation. No, my role here is much, much more boring. I am going to use the controversy to segue into a discussion of city managers, which is known in media terms as a "hook," although successful "hooks" generally don’t involve heavy use of the term "city manager."
I searched but was unable to find a list of the largest cities in America that use a city manager. Kansas City has to be right at the top, though, making Mr. Cauthen sort of a star in the industry. Cincinnati is well-known for being a forerunner in this form of government, but most large cities, like St. Louis, still use the more well-known mayor-council form. The job of city manager is also notoriously unstable, as Mr. Cauthen is seeing right now.
38 cities in Missousi use the council-manager form of government, including my home of University City. The essential points of this system are that the elected mayor and city council leave the day-to-day operations of the city to the manager, usually someone with a background in government and degree in a related field like urban planning. The mayor and council then focus on the larger issues, and give final approval to those decisions of the manager that require legislation, such as contracts. One rule often held in council-manager cities is that it is improper for the elected officials to contact municipal employees directly they must go through the city manager. Often, the single most important decision a council makes is whom to hire as city manager.
Approximately 150 Missouri cities use the closely related city administrator form of government. This form is used in cities such as Kirkwood, Arnold, St. Charles, Jefferson City, Chesterfield, and Raytown. In this form, the mayor and council appoint a professional city administrator to run the city, but the mayor and council retain more control of certain operations. In reality, the daily jobs of city managers and city administrators are very similar, but city managers rank higher on the occupational totem pole.
I have generally been very impressed by the people I have met who are city managers and administrators. In my opinion, the key to the job is not falling too much in love with government itself, and to recognize and accept the limits of what government can do. In most cities, the city manager or administrator is extremely powerful, because part-time elected officials just do not have the opportunity to know everything there is to know. This is, of course, sort of the point, but if the city manager or administrator falters, it may take awhile for the council to become aware of it. Something like that happened in Crestwood a few years back, if I recall correctly.
I have no idea what will happen to Mr. Cauthen in Kansas City. In the larger cities that use city managers, like KC, and have full-time mayors, it is no doubt imperative that they be able to work together. I would love to see some type of city manager system brought to St. Louis, but I might as well wish for Microsoft, Exxon, and the Bank of England to relocate here while I am at it, for all the good it will do.