Draft (October 2007)

Needed: A less-strong City Manager

Part 6 of "The Palo Alto Process: A culture of bad decision-making"

By Douglas Moran

Note: the "current City Manager" referred to here retired in summer 2008. His successor as City Manager (James Keene) is still to new (January 2008) to assess.

Palo Alto has what is known as a "Strong City Manager" form of government, which is very common for cities our size. The City Manager is responsible for the day-to-day running of the City, and the City Council has a role roughly analogous to a corporate board of directors or a legislature.

The current City Manager was hired (in 2000) to play an even stronger role in City governance. There is considerable debate about whether that, and subsequent, Councils ceded too much power to the City Manager. For me, the answer is "yes" and can be seen most clearly in the reports he sends to Council for their decisions.

These reports should lay out the background, alternatives and tradeoffs and then present a recommendation. Instead, these reports too often take the form of advocacy for that recommendation. There are routine complaints that other points of view are often omitted or misrepresented in these reports.

The reports are not organized to facilitate deliberation, but this is nothing new. I have been told that this began more than four decades ago when a Council complained that they weren't getting enough information on the decisions they were making. The City Manager's response was to dump large volumes of poorly-structured data on Council members - a classic bureaucratic tactic. And it is very effective - you will hear Council members confess that they are overwhelmed and don't understand an issue, and consequently they are just going to vote for the City Manager's recommendation.

That the reports can be hard to work with is not unintentional. Over the years, I have been involved in issues at very early stages. I have identified things likely to cause unnecessary confusion and suggested easy ways to avoid it. But no fixes are made, with the predicted problems arising, often at multiple successive stages. I have heard various excuses for not fixing such problems, but the most frank is "You have to remember that this is a City Manager's Report."

When the City Manager's Reports are advocacy, there are far-reaching impacts on the decision process. Why bother to participate in the early stages of the process if your inputs are going to be ignored or misrepresented? One very clear message to residents is that you should put all your energies into the hearing before Council.

And this has a subsidiary problem: When facts and alternatives are first raised in the Council session, there is no time to validate or assess them. Council is ill-equiped to figure out which of the critiques of the City Manager's recommendation are valid, and whether any of the proferred alternatives have been adequately explored.

But the far bigger problem with the current approach is that it undermines the perception of the professionalism of the City staff. "Professionalism" is commonly viewed as having two components: expertise and the non-partisan application of that expertise ("follow the facts"). It is the latter that is harmed when the City Manager's Report is viewed as being improperly selective in its use of this important body of expertise.

Palo Alto would benefit from the City Manager's Reports being held in the same high regard as those from the City Auditor. But this is going to require a substantial cultural shift, and is unlikely to be accomplished under the current City Manager. This City Manager was hired because a strong advocate for critical policies was sorely needed - Palo Alto had drifted into substantial financial difficulty because those City Councils were unable to maintain the necessary discipline in its decision-making.

The first step in restoring a more desirable balance of power between the City Manager and the City Council is electing Council members whose influence on the conduct of Council extends beyond their individual votes to how Council as a whole conducts its duties.

"The four pound Council packet": City Manager George Morgan, circa 1966. Source: Jay Thorwaldson