Emerging Generations in Local Government – 11

Cookingham Connection - Will NWe’re continuing our series in the Cookingham Connection with a perspective from an emerging leader in local government. You heard what the county manager of Catawba County, North Carolina had to say about Cookingham’s 11th guidepost. Now hear it from the perspective of Will Norris. Will is the Special Projects Coordinator for the City of Long Beach, California’s Police Department. He earned his Master of Business Administration from Willamette University.


Guidepost #11:

Never forget that you are a servant of the people, and instill that philosophy in each of your employees. If you find one who cannot understand this philosophy, remove him for he will be no good to you or to the city. If you ever get the idea that you are ruler, you, also, will be no good to the city or to the form of government.

L.P. Cookingham’s 11th Guidepost most directly addresses the philosophy behind the council-manager form of government. Last week, Tom Lundy wrote about what this philosophy says about the privilege, opportunity, and the responsibility inherent in the position of a City Manager. He also noted the increased expectation of transparency since L.P. Cookingham wrote the guidepost. My educational background is in business administration. Because of this, my essay focuses on the similarities and differences of the governance philosophy of public corporations and council-manager municipal governments, and how new managers can adapt these structures to the 21st century.

The governance structure of council-manager cities and publicly-traded corporations are nearly identical and serve similar purposes. The governing board represents a voting membership and directs an executive officer who is responsible for operating the enterprise on a daily basis. This structure was developed to align the interests of the organization with its equity holders and also ensure professional management. The equity holders in a corporation are shareholders. Identifying a City’s equity holders is a more difficult question. In this guidepost, L.P. Cookingham defines who the City serves as “the people.”

Determining how to best serve “the people” is a complex, and in my opinion, more interesting question than how to maximize corporate shareholder wealth. Corporations have clear metrics to organize and direct resources. Sales growth, profit margins, and return-on-investment provide objective measures to evaluate the effectiveness of a corporate executive officer. In local government, there is no yard stick to measure the value of library services against police patrol. A City Council is the best mechanism developed to-date to express the priorities of the community. This week’s guidepost is a reminder that the true “owners” of a City are “the People,” and that is who we as public professionals serve.

The construct of an elected governing board directing professional management is a structure which has withstood the test of time, but is also increasingly challenged by contemporary issues. The council-manager form was developed during the progressive era of the early 1900s and hasn’t changed significantly since. Regional governance, reliance on outside funding sources, and a heightened regulatory environment test the fundamental premise of the structure. Namely “the people” who city management serves is circumscribed by the bounds of their jurisdiction. The mesh of funding sources cities rely on, and the legal mandates which must be met, mean that City Managers have a much larger constituency to consider.

Adapting local government to this changing environment is a challenge facing the next generation of public managers. A recent budget hearing comment encapsulates the issue at hand. During this meeting, a citizen commented, “I don’t know why you always want the public to pay for these services. Why don’t you use your government money?” This anecdote illustrates how the complexity of municipal government financing has far exceeded the original context of the council-manager form. When direct services are funded by sources outside the community from grants, the grantors become important stakeholders. When grant funds end, the community suffers the consequence of either discontinuing valued services, or paying for them locally. Grant funds from other agencies often mask the true cost of services for residents.

Tom Lundy’s guidepost #11 reflection noted that, “Today’s public administrator has to be adept at sharing instead of guarding information, and collaborating across boundaries instead of working in isolation.” I believe this statement is the key to adapting the council-manager form of government for the next one hundred years. Transparency, collaboration, and clear communication are essential to building trust and understanding with those we serve and recognizing that our new constituencies exceed the boundaries of our communities.


The Cookingham Connection blog series is published in partnership with Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL). ELGL members are local government leaders with a passion for connecting, communicating, and educating.

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