Managing local government: The council-manager governance model

SmithBy Dan Smith, a former Township Trustee and County Commissioner

When thinking about managing government, many people are likely to gravitate towards an executive, such as the President or Governor.  While this structure is obviously very well-known, it is likely to have the least amount of impact on the daily lives of most citizens.  Outside of the federal government and states, typically only large cities and large counties use the “legislature-executive” model. In many local government units[1] some type of administrator manages government, not only in Michigan but throughout the country.

Often this administrator, whose actual title may be Superintendent (schools), Manager (cities, villages, and townships) or Administrator (counties), is the most visible and well-known person associated with the particular local government[2].  There is good reason for this: first, there is only one administrator, compared to at least five, or often more, members of the elected governing body. Second, like the CEO of a company, the administrator is hired to be the face entity.  Finally, the board members may meet in public for a few hours every week or two, but the work of an administrator is visible every day.

(Of course, as with all analogies, it’s important to know where they break down. While very few stockholders know the members of the Board of Directors—most are reelected en masse with no opposition—elected officials presumably want to be well-known by the voting public.)

Besides the attributes already mentioned, what makes this governance model so widespread?  Why not further replicate the federal model (legislature-executive) to local government?  As it turns out, in the spring of 2015 the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners (BOC) asked this very question: should the voters of Washtenaw County elect a County Executive[3] or continue with the BOC hiring a County Administrator.  After considerable discussion, which likely delayed the eventual hiring of a new county administrator, the board voted to stay with the current model.  Why?

Perhaps the simplest answer is that an administrator is a trained professional.  The administrator has many years of management experience, usually in other local units of government.  Of course, everybody gets a “first job” someplace; those seeking administrator roles often have extensive course-work in areas such as public administration, planning, public finance, law, or political science.  An administrator wants to have a career of managing local government.

There are additional benefits to having an administrator: since the position is hired rather than elected, the administrator is insulated somewhat from the political process.  Beyond fostering good decision making and compromises to keep all his[4] bosses happy, an administrator provides stability and continuity by not being replaced at every election cycle.

Sometimes, it is necessary to implement unpopular decisions such as cutting or eliminating a popular, but non-mandated, program because of budget shortfalls.  In such situations, an administrator can help to shield the elected officials from political fallout: the board votes to adopt particular policy (a budget specified at the department level), and leaves the actual implementation of that policy (the line-items in each department) up to the administrator.

Administrators are common throughout Michigan’s many local governments, and with good reason.  Washtenaw County’s newest County Administrator, Greg Dill, is a graduate of Eastern Michigan University.  Keep studying!

[1] The most notable exception is a General Law Township; Charter Township Supervisors have significant management authority.
[2] School Districts or Intermediate School Districts aren’t necessarily considered “local government” in Michigan.
[3] Only four of Michigan’s 83 counties have an elected executive: Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Bay.
[4] As the Board of Commissioners discovered while searching for a new County Administrator, the field is strongly male-dominated.

Dan Smith is a Software Engineer; he has served as both a Township Trustee and County Commissioner.

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