Guidepost #4 – Cal Horton, Town of Chapel Hill (NC)

Posted on August 15, 2014

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Horton Connection

Today, we hear from Cal Horton, the retired former Chapel Hill town manager. He also served as the Decatur, Georgia assistant city manager;  Chapel Hill director of public safety; and the City of Charlotte in various positions.

Remember that the average fellow with whom you talk, whether he is a member of the council, one of the city’s staff, or a citizen, does not know as much about the job of municipal administration as you know now or will know in the years ahead; so don’t get too far beyond him, for he will not be able to follow you.

I had the good fortune to spend a few hours with Mr. Cookingham in a small seminar at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, when I was in the Master of Public Administration Program.  He was advertised to us in the advance material as a city management hero, the man who cleaned-up Kansas City after the Pendergast machine, the “Dean of City Managers.”

He wore a well-tailored dark suit, highly polished shoes, white shirt, a repp tie with a little color, and a closely-trimmed moustache – and he created a presence simply by walking in the room.  Over the next few hours, he was charming, intelligent, witty, and surprisingly inspirational to a group of students who, consistent with the vogue at the time, did not trust anyone over 30.

Now, as then, I hold Mr. Cookingham in high regard as an exemplar of excellence in local government management and a role model as an ethical public servant.  There is much to admire and embrace in his Guideposts, many of which still have the strong ring of truth.

The hubris found today in Guidepost Number Four probably was not so evident in 1956, when it was published in PM by ICMA.  Perhaps his assertion was true in 1940, when he was appointed City Manager of Kansas City.  Number Four might have been good advice in the late 1920’s, when he began his career in city government.  After all, Mr. Cookingham was trained as an engineer, and engineers certainly know and understand things that the rest of us don’t (e.g., they take math courses as electives!).

Today, however, I cannot recommend Number Four as a guidepost for local government managers.

You may think that my opinion is shaped by my experience as Town Manager in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the home of UNC; and, perhaps it is.  I worked in a city where my teachers lived.  Donald Hayman knew more than I did about human resource management.  Deil Wright knew more than I did about intergovernmental relations.  Milton Heath knew more than I did about water and wastewater management.  Bob Stipe knew more than I did about city and regional planning.  And, the list goes on.

The Town Council Members with whom I worked often had PhD’s, MA’s, MS’s, MPA’s, or JD’s.  Nobel Laureates lived in our town and occasionally argued issues at Council Meetings.  The Town’s department directors were highly educated and recognized as leaders in their respective fields.

Chapel Hill is a university community, where good ideas and sound arguments — regardless of source– are prized above authority and position.  As a practicality, Guidepost Number Four would not work in Chapel Hill.

But, I think the greater influence on me came from the teachings of the MPA Program, particularly about the ethical practice of local government management and the importance of understanding my own values.  One of my teachers, Bob Daland, helped me appreciate that my most important skill set would be the ability to discern, evaluate, apply, refine, articulate, and consistently exemplify a set of personal values congruent with the needs and requirements of a life in public service.  My philosophical difficulty with Guidepost Number Four grows out of this notion.

One interpretation is that Number Four is not about the role of the manager but solely about how the manager communicates with council members, staff, and citizens; in essence, an admonition to speak plainly and avoid assuming without evidence that others are as familiar with a subject as you are.  If this was Mr. Cookingham’s purpose, I would agree; but, I think he would have plainly said so, if that was his intent.

Another interpretation of Number Four presents the manager as The Manager, the expert, the one who always knows best, the one who knows and understands things that the rest of us do not.  It presents council members, staff, and citizens as uninformed at best and ignorant at worst.  This kind of thinking separates the manager from the council, the staff, and citizens; it seems to make the manager “better” than the others.  I do not accept this idea.  I think it is not a good foundation for the kind of facilitative leadership that I believe managers should practice.

Managers are not better, they are not the only experts, they do not always know best, and they are not the only ones who understand community problems and possibilities for mitigating them.  Managers who assume the old role of Expert will predictably fail to provide the leadership and support necessary in contemporary local government management.  Their values will blind them to the knowledge and wisdom of all the others around them.

The role of the manager has changed substantially since ICMA was founded 100 years ago, since Mr. Cookingham began his career in the late 1920’s, and since his Guideposts were published a half-century ago.  If he were with us today, I think he would agree that the era of Manager as Expert passed long ago.

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