Let me be honest about this subject right from the beginning. As a long-time township manager, one could easily ascertain that I am biased on the question and unable to offer an objective view on the topic. In actually, I feel that I am more than capable of offering some insight and will hopefully cause you to think about this opportunity far beyond the simple question most government officials ask and focus on, “can we afford to hire a township manager.”
Our leaders tend to be bottom-line decision-makers. They focus on what is it going to cost and how to pay for it. If a municipality is broaching the thought of having a manager, most likely an internal situation has occurred, or even better, someone with a vision of the future would like the board to consider the idea. The design of a township has remained pretty much the same since its inception, which I would like to remind everyone was originally created to oversee roads in their community. Since then, the state and federal governments have continued to add responsibilities, new requirements and new challenges via new rules and mandates, which at times can be overwhelming.
In today's society, it is rare to find an elected official who merely wants to serve his or her community and expects nothing in return. Don’t get me wrong, they are out there, and thank goodness for their commitment. When it comes time for a person to run for office, several factors can play in that decision-making process. One, I don’t agree with so and so who is in office now and I want to get them out. Two, I can’t get the current board to address a concern I have so therefore I will run for office to get this accomplished. Three, the board member is a full-time paid position with benefits and would make a nice career change. The list can go on and on.
One of the first mistakes some are making is the notion that they know a guy who would be great for the job. He sold cars for a while, so he is used to paperwork/office settings and is looking for work. In today’s world of local government, you need background education and experience to lead the community wisely. Potential candidates can come from other branches, such as zoning officers, DPW directors, secretaries, and administrative assistants. Many of these have years of experience and only need minimal training to hone their skills better for a managerial position. I myself had a college education in business, worked with heavy equipment, and later was a roadmaster, who went on to become an elected official prior to obtaining a township manager job in the next county over.
However, back to the crux of the matter, why hire a manager? Do you have someone on staff who can converse professionally with residents and other officials about the needs and direction of your municipality? Is someone competent with a computer to stay on top of the multiple forms and reports that are required to be filled regularly? Does your operation have someone who can prepare a budget based on short and long-term goals and see that it is adhered to? Are you confident that this person can represent the board's position in person and with the media? Can they oversee the other employees on a daily basis to complete the work and improvements that residents have grown to expect? This is just a brief overview of the many responsibilities a manager will be faced with.
You might say that your current secretary is more than capable of these items and has been doing it for years now. Great, then you should consider giving that person the proper title and letting them truly do the job. The comment will be, well they don't really know anything about road maintenance though, or running an efficient meeting or how to apply for various grants. Now you are right back to square one. A good manager does all of these things and more. Unfortunately, in local government, emotions can play too big of a role. Gee, the secretary has been with us for fifteen years and we don't want to upset this person. That may be the case, but are you looking to the future of your operation and wanting it to be efficient and cost-effective?
Change is never easily received. The township I worked for committed in the early 70s to change its form of government. After a study commission completed its work, it was decided to ask the community to make the local body a Home Rule/Optional Plan form of government that had a manager and an appointed, not elected, mayor from within the elected councilpersons ranks. Pretty radical for that period of time. I commend them for thinking way outside the box. Over forty-eight years have passed since that was put in place and in that time, they have had only three managers. The community has gone through some tumultuous events over the years, but good management has allowed them to prosper and grow.
Forward thinking may help you now and down the line if your municipality is considering hiring a manager. One of the best ways to see if a prospective new manager is right for your community is to ask during the interview process how they will justify their position financially. Basically, how can you make up the difference in the direct and indirect cash flow to pay for your position? I encourage you to use this technique and closely scrutinize their answers.
Direct cash flow may come from an improved way of getting delinquent accounts to pay up, perhaps a better way of investing money, adjusting staff, or the daily operation to make better use of wages. An indirect may be obtaining grants for various projects or locating donations that benefit the community. We have seen large donations of land that improved the quality of life for the entire area, certainly that has a value to it. Creative thinking, planning, and implementation are the lifeblood of any good manager. Anyone can shuffle paper from one side of the desk to the other and agree with department heads to avoid decision-making. It's the person who asks who, what and why before giving direction that you want.
One quality I find admirable in any management candidate is the ability to make a decision and stand by it. It is that self-assurance that sets leaders apart from each other. For those of you who are elected officials making paychecks regularly from the municipality, I ask if you can set aside your personal financial reasons, your political reasons, and your “well its always been this way” reasons and decide if a manager could better operate your township now and more importantly in the future.
If you are even remotely considering a new manager position, you need to reach out to Keystone Municipal Solutions and tap into their storehouse of knowledge on the subject. They understand the requirements and can help you with short-term management or better yet assist in the hiring process of a new manager. Then after they have come onboard, KMS can continue with regular mentoring and skill-building to ensure a successful transformation of your municipal operation.
A good manager shouldn’t cost you any more money if they are qualified. In fact, they should save you money and bring additional revenue in. That’s what good managers do, find that person and you’ll never regret making this change.
Fire this thing up, we’re hiring a manager.
About the Author
David L. Anthony is a member of the Keystone Municipal Solutions team of experts. He is a veteran of municipal government, having served more than 32 years in various positions of public service. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about David and the Keystone Municipal Solutions team, click here.