Welcome to week #3 of the Cookingham Connection. This week, we hear from Roger Kemp, the Practitioner in Residence at the College of New Haven. Mr. Kemp began his public service career as an Assistant to the City Manager in the City of Oakland, one of the largest cities with the council-manager form of government in the State of California. He was later the City Manager of the City of Clifton, the largest city with the council-manager form of government in State of New Jersey. He also served as the City Manager of the City of Meriden, the largest city with the council-manager form of government in State of Connecticut. He is a member of ICMA, GFOA, ASPA, Urban Land Institute, The Academy of Political Science, and the World Future Society. He is past-president of the State Chapters of ICMA and ASPA in the States of California and Connecticut.
You have to “give and take” all along the way, but when you must give ground to the “left,” be sure that when you return toward the center you go to the “right” as far as possible. In “giving,” never do anything that may be illegal or that is contrary to the basic principles of the plan of government with which you are working.
Early in my city management career, a council person said that he thought that I was a “liberal,” since I seemed overly concerned about certain segments of the public in the policy-setting process. Later in my career, another council person said that he had heard that I was a “conservative,” and this is why all of my staff recommendations were fiscally conservative. These were comments made by elected officials who hired me to be the city manager of their community.
Later in my career (more like my mid-career) I got tired of elected officials trying to categorize me because of my personal political party affiliation. After all, I was their hired city management professional, and my staff recommendations had nothing to do with my personal partisan political affiliations. I only made, as their city manager, professionally responsible staff recommendations.
During my mid-career, I changed my political party affiliation to be an “unaffiliated” voter. After all, I did not professionally care what political party a mayor or council member belonged to since they were all my boss, collectively speaking. Each one of them received a majority vote, either at-large or in a district, and they individually and collectively “held the trust” of the people that they represented. Their personal election was a result of our nation’s democratic election process.
I’ve worked in both liberal communities and conservative communities, and I never searched out or preferred one over the other. I liked one community where council members ran for office and the political party they belonged to was not even on the ballot (out West). Later on, in another city, every candidate for office had their party affiliation listed after their name on the ballot (back East). Out West when council members were elected to office I did not even know about their personal political party affiliation. Nor did I personally or professionally care. Back East I knew of every candidate’s political party affiliation, since it was on the ballot.
I would always tell elected officials, primarily mayors and city council members, that they collectively hired me and that I worked for them. All of my recommendations were always professional in nature, and there was no politics involved in the staff recommendation process. I also told them that I did not care what political party that they personally belonged to. They were all elected by the people, by majority vote, and they all held the trust of the people. Regardless of their personal party affiliation, they were all my boss, collectively speaking.
This is the role of a city manager. City Managers should be unaffiliated voters, and tell elected officials wherever they work that all of their recommendations are always professional in nature. After all, the folks elected by majority vote hold the trust of the people, and they are collectively your boss, and you should treat them all with equal respect.
I have also worked in cities where you see, at election time, signs for political candidates along party lines. All of the “D’s” are listed on some political signs, and all of the R’s are listed on other political signs. Each party wants you to vote for “their” candidates. In the real world, it is a politically mixed group of candidates that get elected and, as a City Manager, they are collectively your boss regardless of their personal political party affiliations.
I’ve known some city managers that, and if they were a “D”, they only wanted to work in liberal communities, and if they are an “R” they only wanted to work in conservative communities. I always had twice as many jobs to apply for then they did, since I did not care which party that my bosses (elected officials) belonged to, and I told them this during my job interview process. This is the political role of a true city management professional.
During job interviews, at the end, when I was allowed to make a comment, I would explain this philosophy to the elected officials that I could wind up working for/with. I’d also always tell them that “doing the right thing meant more than my job” – professionally speaking.
Lastly, I would also say that I applied for this job because I liked their community, I felt that I could help them improve it, both fiscally and operationally, and that I welcomed the opportunity to work for/with them during the coming years as their city manager.
I usually wound up as one of the “top three” candidates that applied for their city manager position during their respective recruitment/hiring process. On average, I would get a job offer in one of the three city manager jobs that I applied for, since I usually wound-up as one of their “top three” candidates during their respective selection processes!!!