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Council-Manager Model
Wayne Dernetz | 9th Street

Wayne Dernetz, a former Del Mar City Manager, has worked in several other California cities as city manager, finance director, and city attorney.

In 1959, residents of Del Mar narrowly approved municipal incorporation following a heated campaign. Soon after, the new City Council adopted the “Council-Manager” form of government for the fledgling city.

The Council-Manager form has three essential elements:

• The City Council delegates its executive authority to the City Manager. Executive authority consists of the day-to-day administrative functions necessary for the efficient operation of city services including: hiring, firing, and supervising employees; implementing Council approved policies and programs, efficiently and equitably; recommending budgets for City Council approval; and ensuring that hiring and contract awards are based on merit rather than favoritism. The ongoing pursuit of efficiency, merit-based selection procedures, and equity in providing city services – consistent with City Council approved goals and policies – are the hallmarks of the effective city manager.

• As the elected representatives of city residents, the City Council retains all its legislative powers. These include adopting city ordinances and policies; approving annual budgets; imposing taxes and fees for services (consistent with Constitutional limitations); establishing priorities; carrying out duties and responsibilities imposed by State law; approving or ratifying all expenditures and contracts; and appointing and removing the city manager upon a majority vote, subject to any employment agreements and State law.

• City Council members are restricted from giving orders to employees and from interfering with the City Manager’s executive authority. The City Council may hire and fire the City Manager, but may not direct the Manager on how to manage. Other provisions of Del Mar’s Council-Manager ordinance are defined in Chapters 2.20, 2.24 and 2.28 of Title 2 of the Municipal Code.

The Council-Manager form of government originated during the Progressive Era in U.S. politics, at the close of the 1800s, to counter widespread political corruption across the country. Abuses of the “spoils system,” partisan machine politics, and open corruption were rampant, including within local governments. Reformers combined the principles of Frederick Taylor’s “Scientific Management,” emphasizing rational, evidenced based decision making, with the emerging principles for governing private corporations, featuring a professionally trained chief executive running day-to-day business affairs under direction of a policy making board of directors elected by and representing shareholders.

Merging principles of scientific management with the corporate structure enabled cities to operate more efficiently and equitably. Today, more than 3,500 U.S cities, about half the total, have adopted the council manager plan. And according to one recent survey, 473 of California’s 482 cities are governed under this plan.
Today’s city managers are highly educated, skilled professionals. Two thirds possess master’s degrees or higher. Typically, they serve an apprenticeship by working in a city manager’s office as an assistant or a department manager before securing an appointment.

Experienced, successful city managers are in high demand. For smaller cities, retaining the city manager can be challenging.

Larger cities offer higher compensation packages and can hire the best qualified city managers. When issues of discord or dissatisfaction with a manager’s performance arise, city councils are well advised to try to restore the relationship rather than to abandon it. The costs of recruiting and hiring a new city manager are high.

And, where the relationship between City Council and the manager are good, the city council must be willing to defend the city manager from unwarranted public criticisms. City managers are easily targeted as political scapegoats, or by disgruntled employees. Their only defense against unwarranted criticisms is to request a public hearing. Council members must take care to evaluate city manager performance based on their own experience and knowledge of the situation, and not to rely solely upon public opinion.

 

 

 

 

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