Trust is critical to council-manager relationship | Guest Column | Aug. 19

Our new council-manager form of government has reached an important milestone. On Aug. 10, Brenda Bauer became Bainbridge Island’s first city manager. Since June 2010, Ms. Bauer has worked with the council and staff to address the city’s financial crisis by cutting expenditures and increasing reserves. Today, the city is poised to begin a new chapter to improve its governance.

During and after the change of government, many have asked for a “culture change” at City Hall. This change should go beyond staff and include both council and city manager. To gain community trust, the city organization must begin to exhibit trust and collaboration in all its dealings with one another.

The timing of the vote on the city manager’s position was due, in part, to new information not available to all council members. It was important and should have been considered by all council members, who would have been better informed to make a decision. And all council members should always have the same information when making a decision.

Core values of honesty and truth build trust and result in better communication, collaboration and decision-making.

The vote to remove the “interim” title followed Ms. Bauer’s annual assessment and occurred without the results being discussed with her by council. Instead, there should have been candid dialogue establishing clear expectations before a promotion was given.

It is important to set expectations for the city manager. Defining the relationship between the manager, council, staff and community by establishing job descriptions, practices and goals will achieve common objectives of cooperation and accountability, and build trust throughout the organization.

Better coordination and timely communications also needs to occur between the city and the community. For example, two major projects – Strawberry Plant Park and the Winslow Way project – have lacked effective communications. Strawberry Plant fell short of expectations and resulted in the Park District’s rejection. Winslow Way’s promised target was missed and it’s now seven weeks behind, forcing the community to develop last-minute Fourth of July events. Local businesses are continually unable to plan without an understanding of what to expect.

The manager and council present two aspects of the “face of the city.” In our form of government, each has separate roles while working to achieve common goals. The primary role of city manager is that of CEO. It is just as important for the “face” of the city organization to communicate with the community as the “face” of the City Council. Both are responsible for addressing community issues and it’s best when they work in concert.

After working 25 years in municipal government, Ms. Bauer now has first-time experience as city manager. She begins her duties in a strategic partnership with the council. One of the most important resources both have is the International Council Manager Association (ICMA). Its support for local governments offers assistance to the challenges faced in delivering services to citizens.

Recognizing the right of citizens to influence local decisions, promoting active citizen involvement, and advocating effectively in the community interest are core qualities for city managers and council members. They help improve the trust and cooperation with the citizens we serve.

It is my hope that as an ICMA member our new city manager follows its best practices, ethics pledge, and professional development requirements.

Core ICMA principles include: “integrity; public service; seek no favor; exemplary conduct in both personal and professional matters; respect the role and contributions of elected officials; exercise the independence to do what is right; political neutrality; serve the public equitably and governing body members equally; keep the community informed about local government matters; and support and lead the employees.”

Furthermore: “The history of successful Council/Manager relations is founded in the notion that policy development and adoption is the Council’s responsibility and policy implementation and city administration is the City Manager’s task. Flourishing cities do not draw the line so simply and clearly. The best cities are the ones which recognize that Council and Management roles sometimes overlap, and that a successful relationship is founded in mutual trust between the two, with an understanding of how each adds value to providing local government services.” (Council-Manager Government Transition Manual, May 2009).

Working together, we can accomplish great things.

Councilor Debbi Lester was on the council’s ad hoc committee that evaluated the city manager.

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