The council-manager professionalization movement was borne out of a purposeful desire to rid local governments of fraudulent dealings, backroom trading, and political meddling. Back in the late 1800’s, critics of municipal governments decried the corruption and bossism in cities across the country. Among others, Haven H. Mason was a prominent official in Santa Clara and later San Francisco who advocated for a “distinct profession of municipal managers” that would have “sound business judgment” and apply “strict business principles” in their municipal management. This led to a wave of organizational, educational, and political support for the profession that continues today. Examples of this include the numerous degrees in Public Administration and Policy offered at universities today, such as the Master of Public Administration (MPA) or Master of Public Policy (MPP), as well as the 1985 establishment of the California City Managers Foundation (CCMF).
This council-manager system of government now has over a century of positive history in California, as well as other states. To wit, 97% of California’s 482 cities are said to operate under this non-partisan and professional management mindset, as compared with 48% nationwide. By extension, many special districts and counties have adopted this same non-partisan professional mindset over the years, as well. Note that five major cities in California currently use a “strong mayor” form of government where the elected mayor is the chief administrative officer, working with an appointed administrative official: These are San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, and Fresno. (Ironically, San Francisco has arguably had the strongest mayor system of the five: In recent years, many restrictions on mayoral power were instituted, though those are currently being questioned in the City by the Bay.)
In other words, a city manager equals a professional municipal CEO. A recent groundbreaking study of California city managers, by the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College, claims these professionals are the “most important group of local government officials in the state today,” yet there is a lack of comprehensive studies and statistics on the profession’s make up.
To fill this void, the study published contains a lot of data. A few select highlights of this are:
- City managers are an accomplished group, with over 70% having post-graduate degrees.
- Their career experience averages over 25 years in the public sector and over 5 in the private sector.
- Approximately half of them were promoted to the role after having served as an assistant or deputy city manager.
- The diversity of city managers is starting to represent California’s diversity, more or less. While women are still a minority of the whole, their representation has recently increased significantly.
The interesting Rose Institute report is available in its entirety at their website: 2023 California City Manager Survey: A Profile of the Profession | The Rose Institute of State and Local Government