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William G. Dressel Jr, Executive Director - Michael J. Darcey, CAE, Asst Executive Director

Relationships among Mayors, Governing Bodies, Managers/Administrators, Attorneys, Clerks and Professional Staff

By G. C. Fehrenbach, in collaboration with R. Burkholder, R. Casey, C. Smeltzer

What are some ways by which a local government might improve its performance? How should key policy and management leaders interact? How involved should elected officials be in day-to-day municipal business? This skills update will attempt to provide some guidance.

A Key Ingredient
Development of a good working relationship among elected and appointed officials is a key ingredient to establish and maintain a well run local government. To establish this working relationship, it is important each have a clear understanding of the proper role of all parties in this relationship. An open communication process based upon trust in the professionalism of each of the participants will contribute greatly to achieving the objective.

Unfortunately, when participants in this relationship work outside their proper roles the confusion that results can have a long-term adverse impact on the overall management of the municipality.

Form of government
The form of local government in New Jersey usually defines the responsibilities and authorities of elected and appointed officials. For example,

  • In the Faulkner Mayor-Council form, staff reports to the mayor, who is the chief executive. Department heads, including the business administrator, carry out the day-to-day management of the governmental organization. The municipal council’s responsibility is almost exclusively legislative. Council members may not legally give directions to staff. With a supermajority, the Council may override some mayoral decisions.
  • In the Faulkner Council-Manager form, staff also reports to the statutory chief executive, the municipal manager. The manager is responsible to the elected governing body for the overall municipal operation. As in the mayor-council form, council members may not legally give directions to staff. The mayor, in this form, has similar responsibilities to that of the president of the council in the mayor-council form.
  • The role of an ordinance administrator is not as simple. The administrator's role depends on how the local ordinance defines the position. If your town has an ordinance administrator, you should read the ordinance. In some municipalities, the ordinance has effectively made the administrator the chief executive officer. In others, the authority and responsibility is more limited. The governing body makes this determination.

Responsibilities of the Elected or Appointed Position
The foregoing serves as an introduction to a discussion of the interrelationships among the local officials. Each official has an important and unique role to play in the overall administration of the governmental organization.

An administrator or manager who begins to take on the political and policy responsibilities of the mayor or governing body damages working relationships. Likewise, a mayor who begins to take on the administrative responsibilities of the administrator/manager undermines overall organizational effectiveness. In these situations, officials become confused about who is to carry out various functions. Some issues are worked on by two or more officials while others are not addressed at all. The statutes have designed each form of government to separate the policymaking, executive and administrative functions of the municipality.

When the integrity of the form of the government is undermined, several undesirable outcomes can occur,

  • it is less likely that officials will be able to carry out their responsibilities effectively and efficiently,
  • it is highly likely that a legal complication will arise in an employment practices claim or a general liability claim and
  • in the event the Prosecutor’s Office investigates the actions of a local official, the office will look closely to see if the official operated within the boundaries of the statutory limits.

If the citizens of a municipality have chosen the form of government, it is incumbent upon the elected and appointed leaders to comply with their constituents’ choice.

To be most effective in one’s assigned role, each official must understand and respect the roles of their other governmental colleagues. Fine lines separate the characteristic of “paying attention to detail” from micromanagement. Similarly, delegation of work to the lowest responsible level can be confused with being an absentee manager. Sometimes administrative staff sees attention to constituent concerns as pandering to the “squeaky wheel.” The parties should discuss these style issues and differing perspectives openly for the development of a positive working relationship.

Tips
Here are some tips for an improved relationship.

  • increase dialogue among the officials regarding management style, strengths and weaknesses,
  • policy makers should set clear, measurable, time sensitive and explicit goals for the organization to achieve,
  • develop a genuine desire among all elected and appointed officials to make the relationship work,
  • conduct goals setting sessions; conduct retreats; conduct performance appraisals,
  • communicate goals, aspirations, and vision,
  • show respect for another’s opinion,
  • develop a true belief in the value of democracy,
  • trust that the vast majority of public employees are dedicated to serving their fellow citizens, and
  • display civility toward one’s colleagues and their opinions.

Implementation of these suggestions will significantly improve the opportunity for a successful governmental administration.

Academic Viewpoints
The issue of relationships among these officials is not a New Jersey only issue. Nationwide this had been discussed and debated for decades, surely prior to the reform movement of the early 1900’s. Looking at the matter from a nationwide perspective Jane G. Kazman writes in Working Together, a Guide for Elected and Appointed Officials that there are a number of models that try to explain these relationships. She proceeds to describe two models that depart from the traditional “dichotomy” model, which states that policy is the province of the elected officials and administration is in the province of the appointed manager or administrator and professional staff. Here she describes one (the Nalbandian) model of local government relationships:

Appointed officials (read managers and administrators) need to understand the perspective of both elected officials and the professional staff. Elected officials see the world through political lenses-with one eye on what their constituents value. They translate citizen values and needs into policies that will build and strengthen communities. Professional staff are experts in specialized areas such as planning, traffic engineering, and utilities. These individuals have a keen sense of what can work because that are responsible for implementing policies and ensuring the day-to-day operations of governmental functions.

The successful appointed official, acting as the translator, builds bridges between the elected officials and the professional staff. While the elected officials develop policies and direction, the appointed official translates those policies and directions to the professional staff, who must implement then. The appointed official also translates to the elected officials how professional staff can implement those directions and alerts them to any problems that the community or staff may encounter.

 

She also describes another (the Svara) model in the following way, it

… recaptures the original partnership [and] is based on the expertise, practical experience, and shared responsibilities of both groups of local government officials. … [it] identifies four dimensions of the governmental process – mission. policy, administration and management – and divides each one by the councils’ and managers’ spheres. Both elected and appointed officials operate in all four dimensions, although they do so to different degrees, performing different tasks.

Her description of this model shows the elected officials being more responsible for mission definition and policy formation while the manager is responsible for the administration and management, the execution of the mission and policy. However, it shows that all are a little involved in each aspect of the governmental operation.

From these academicians who have studied these relationships for some time it can be easily seen that the definition of and respect for role responsibilities and authorities is at the heart of a successful working relationship.

For those who would like to read more on this subject, you may wish to look over the following materials:

  1. Kazman, Jane G. Working Together, A Guide for Elected and Appointed Officials. Washington, D.C. International City/County Management Association, 1999.
  2. Ken Hampton. “Six Reasons Why It’s Best To Work Through the Manager.” In Public Management. (May 2004) 32-33. Washington, D.C.: International City/County Management Association.

 

   Footnotes

  1. J.G. Kazman, Working Together, A Guide for Elected and Appointed Officials, Washington, D.C., The International City/ County Management Association, 1999, p22.
  2. Ibid. p. 19

 

 

 

 

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