While I do not disagree with those who believe the biggest issue that the city faces is a fiscal one, including the need to develop its revenue base through economic development, those who argue that water is vitally important will not get an argument from me either.
However, after watching the city flail around in recent months, I now believe that getting the right city manager is the most important issue facing the city because, without a good city manager, it will be a struggle to handle the fiscal challenges, economic development and, yes, water.
Last week, the city council accepted this challenge when they upped their game and added to the money they were willing to pay for the next city manager. The question, however, facing the council and their hired gun/search consultants is what makes a good city manager.
I was reading the comments on the Davis Enterprise article, and one person called former City Manager Steve Pinkerton a horrible city manager – but why? Mr. Pinkerton did a lot of things really well and his reorganization of city staff, his fiscal reforms, and other policies put Davis in far better shape when he left than when he arrived.
One area that might have been the exception was the employee relations and public relations.
But what do you think we need? In the coming week, I will be looking at various aspects of the job. As usual, the readers are welcome to comment in the articles, but I would especially like readers to come forward with their own pieces that highlight their own perspectives.
Someone sent me a piece from the Dallas Morning News from last November, by a guy named John Nalbandian. Dallas was going through their own city manager search and had a series of viewpoint columns on it.
John Nalbandian has an interesting background, a highly respected professor at the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas. SPAA is ranked as the No. 1 academic program in the country focusing on city management and urban policy.
But in addition to being a top researcher in the field, he also served on the Lawrence, Kansas, City Council for eight years and two terms as mayor.
He wrote, “Many of the writers in this series have focused on the personal attributes needed in the next city manager. I would like to take a different approach and look at the environment contemporary city managers operate in. The most visionary, courageous leader who fails to appreciate that context is doomed to failure.”
This is a critical point. Any city manager coming into Davis must recognize two essential points. First, the issue of fiscal sustainability is critical. Second, they must recognize that change must come slowly. Davis has a very involved, engaged electorate who demand community dialogue and discussion.
This need underlies current issues that face the community – whether they be the need for a parcel tax or the need to develop economically.
As Professor Nalbandian puts it, “The bedrock of effective city management comes from an understanding that nothing significant can be accomplished unless it is both politically acceptable and administratively sustainable.”
He adds, “Political pronouncements, even consensus decisions, without a practical implementation strategy are as pie-in-the-sky as an administrative initiative that has no political legs to stand on. Bridging the inevitable gap between political and administrative arenas requires, above all else, political astuteness in a city manager.”
That is why, for instance, it has taken Rob White, brought on to help Davis develop economically, so long (in relative terms) to get business park proposals and why it will take probably another 15 months both those are implemented.
We know political astuteness when it is in action, but how can we recognize this trait in a manager?
Professor Nalbandian writes and some of our readers need to take note: “Start with the idea that running a city is not like running a corporation. Unlike the corporate CEO, the city manager must respect an array of democratic values — representation, efficiency, social equity and individual rights.”
He writes, “The astuteness comes not only from recognizing these values in virtually all policy arenas, it also builds on a keen appreciation that these values will conflict — and that’s why we have politics. Ignoring any of the values will come back to haunt the city.”
Another key point that is made is, “Political problems are those that surface when all the facts are known yet we still disagree on what we ought to do.”
Many of our readers believe they know the facts and have the one and only answer, but in a community there are often disagreements as to how to approach the problem – even as we understand it.
At this point, Mr. Nalbandian writes, “we do politics.” That is, “we work with conflicting values, seeking consensus/majority.”
Therefore he argues, “The manager who recognizes that efficiency is just one of four values in the political world is an immense help not only to the City Council but also to a staff wondering what on earth the council is doing!”
Consider it this way, he writes, clearly focused on a large city like Dallas, “The politically astute city manager can understand both political and administrative logic. The 12,000 or so employees of the city communicate with the same words that the council and mayor use, but politicians and administrative staff actually speak two different languages. The logic of politics and the logic of administration are different; serving as translator falls to the city manager, with the help of the mayor or other skilled council members and key administrative staff.”
“Additionally, it’s imperative to understand that Dallas does not exist in a vacuum. It is part of a region — and while it heavily influences what happens in the region, it cannot dictate,” he writes.
This point clearly extends to Davis. Davis lives in a broad region, and while it is a small town, housing a major university, Davis can be an important player in the region. We often operate with eyes turned inward and fail to see the bigger picture.
Professor Nalbandian writes, “The challenge is focusing not on the boundaries that separate jurisdictions, nonprofits, foundations, private businesses and neighborhood groups but on soberly asking all the players: ‘What problems are we trying to solve?’ And then confronting the most difficult question: ‘How should we organize ourselves to deal with them?’”
He continues, “In effect, the next city manager must be able to ‘manage boundaries,’ focusing on problems to be solved without becoming overwhelmed by the interests represented by the players.”
Finally, he writes, “Last, citizen engagement is at the forefront of a city’s challenges.” He continues, “I read much about ways to use social media to engage citizens, but we are missing the point. I think there are plenty of ways for citizens to make their views known. The issue in engagement is creating forums that encourage deliberation — encouraging citizens to confront the consequences of their views — these forums are rare.”
“If the citizens and leaders of Dallas are looking for a ‘heroic leader’ as city manager, they are missing the boat,” he writes as he wraps it up. “The problems cities face require city managers who engage in adaptive, not heroic, leadership. Adaptive leaders understand that challenging problems do not have technical solutions; there are no right answers. What must be most valued is engagement that embraces divergent views, respects conflicting values and fosters deliberation.”
That realization leads here, he concludes, “A city manager’s ability to effectively embrace collaborative processes and divergent values is key to success.”
This clearly applies to Davis as well as Dallas. We do not need a heroic leader, we need someone who can navigate the minefield that is Davis’ strength but can devolve into Davis’ weakness.
I found this piece interesting because, while we probably believe we have nothing in common with Dallas, Texas, many if not all of the points brought up apply to Davis.
The question going forward is what traits do we need in a city manager for Davis to be able to move forward?
—David M. Greenwald reporting