Cross Currents

The plight of the city manager

Column by Bill Christopher
Posted 8/9/17

They come and they go. Some stay longer than others. They come in all sizes, shapes and personalities. They can be extroverts, introverts or somewhere in the middle. They serve at the pleasure of the …

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Cross Currents

The plight of the city manager


They come and they go. Some stay longer than others. They come in all sizes, shapes and personalities. They can be extroverts, introverts or somewhere in the middle. They serve at the pleasure of the city council or, in the case of counties, at the pleasure of the board of county commissioners.

Some are change agents while others are administrators. A lot depends on what the city council wants in its city manager. Usually, someone in this profession does not plan to make his or her career in one city or county. Nationally, tenure of a city manager is approximately four years on average.

The job is highly political while at the same time expecting good sound management practices, exceptional listening skills, effective communications skills and financial prowess. The manager usually has between five, seven or nine bosses - each who is elected and have his or her expectations, demands, experience and ego. Given the role of the mayor, most city managers have a closer working relationship with the mayor.

Trying to find a balance in working with councils and boards of commissioners, communicating with them and meeting their collective and individual needs and expectations is an ongoing challenge.

Jobs tend to open in spurts

In Adams County, in the recent past, two city manager positions have opened up and one county manager position became vacant. This is not unusual to have vacancies come in spurts.

Let's start with the City of Thornton's city manager situation.

Jack Ethredge served with distinction as Thornton's city manager and utility director for over 32 years. He was a change agent and provided strong leadership in guiding the city to a much more progressive image as it rapidly grew.

He decided to retire earlier this year after considerable time toiling in the vineyard to make Thornton the city it is today. Jack managed with a strong presence, both with city council and the city staff.

The city council has used a head hunting firm to advertise and recruit candidates across the country to fill the permanent position. Recently, it publicly announced five finalists who went through a public process with citizens, staff and council, getting to spend time with them.

One of the candidates was Phillip Rodriguez, who is now out of the picture since he was just appointed Brighton's new city manager.

This past week, Mayor Heidi Williams announced that the city was in negotiations with Kevin Woods, who is a retired Army colonel and current city manager of Stallings, North Carolina.

Welcome to Brighton's new city manager

Brighton's situation was different than Thornton's. The previous city manager had a rocky relationship with city council in the latter part of his tenure.

Manuel Esquibel left under difficult circumstances when he signed a separation agreement in January and then retired.

Whoever comes in as the new city manager will have the challenge of establishing trust and an open, healthy working relationship with city council, staff and the community. Rodriguez, city manager from Athens, Texas, was recently announced as the council's choice and will assume his duties in September.

Adams County's situation

Finally, we have the situation at Adams County.

Todd Leopold had served as county administrator since 2013 after serving as deputy administrator in 2012. He and the Board of County Commissioners had their differences and he left the employment of Adams County back in April. He was another of the finalists for the Thornton city manager position.

County manager or administrator positions tend to be more tenuous given the prevalent nature of partisan politics where commissioners run for office on a partisan basis and are closely associated with a major political party. Plus, very few counties subscribe to the form of government where the county manager/administrator is responsible for hiring and firing all county personnel and overseeing the day-to-day operations, such as is the case with the council/manager form of government. The elected department heads, i.e. county clerk, sheriff, county treasurer, hire their own staffs and manage their offices.

A city manager's portfolio

In today's market, it is essential for city and county manager candidates to hold a master's degree in public administration or a related field.

For example, Brighton's new city manager is a graduate of the University of Kansas' master's degree program in public administration. It's great to see a fellow alum join us in Colorado.

Most people in this profession are members of the International City County Management Association and subscribe to its code of ethics and professional training opportunities. Usually, the final candidates for a city manager's job have had city manager experience in one or more smaller communities than the city to which they are applying or come from a position high up in the administration of a major city. Four of the original five finalists for the Thornton position currently hold city manager positions in much smaller communities, along with Leopold.

The next time you meet or run into a city manager, please pat the person on the back and tell them to keep up the good work.

Bill Christopher is a former Westminster city manager and RTD board member. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.

Bill Christopher


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