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Apr 02

[ARCHIVED] What Is It Exactly That A City Manager Does?

The original item was published from April 2, 2018 11:04 AM to April 2, 2018 3:51 PM

Ever wonder what it is that I do – that is, what does a City Manager do?  In this post, I will share with you a little about the Council/Manager form of government, the relationship between the Council and the City Manager, and a glimpse into a day in the life of the City Manager.

Let me first pause and say, I have the greatest job there is – ok maybe a professional baseball player would be better, but if you would see me play, you would know that I made a wise career choice.  I love what I do because I love local government.  Helping people address challenges and opportunities closest to where they live, raise families, and work is truly special.  I am afforded a special privilege of influence regarding what we do and do not do in the City and I take that responsibility very seriously.  As a Credentialed Manager with the International City and County Managers Association, I have agreed to conduct myself in accordance with a set of ethical standards.

Council-Manager Form of Government

Staunton, Virginia is credited as the first city to adopt the City Manager form of government and hire a professional manager in 1908.  Since that time, more than 3,300 cities, as small as Staunton and as large as Phoenix, Arizona have adopted the Council-Manager form of government.  Borne out of the progressive movement in the early part of the 20th Century, the Council-Manager form was a direct response to the corruption and improper conduct found among many elected officials throughout the Nation in cities, big and small.  The introduction of a professional running the day-to-day operations of the government, in partnership with an elected Council establishing broad policies and direction, was believed to be the antidote to much of what was not working in government at the local level. 

In the Council-Manager form, the Manager functions a lot like the CEO of a private Corporation, most often with the help of Assistant Managers, who would function as CFO’s and COO’s in the private sector. In this analogy, the Council functions much like the Board of Directors, establishing policy and providing broad direction for the organization, holding the Manager accountable for results aligned with this guidance.  With but a few exceptions, nearly everyone hired to deliver services reports to the City Manager, not the Council – that is the Manager does the hiring, firing, and promoting of nearly all of the workforce present in the Roanoke City government.  The City Manager is hired by and held accountable to the City Council.

Relationship Between City Council and City Manager

As previously mentioned, the City Manager is hired by and reports to the City Council.  The Council, through adoption of official policies and routine public meetings, provide the broad direction that the Manager is expected to advance.  In Roanoke, this includes an adopted Vision Statement, Mission, and several key priority areas.  In addition to these formal interactions, the Manager often meets individually with Council members.  These meetings help ensure that each Council member is afforded the opportunity to consult with the Manager individually, in addition to their interactions as a corporate body.

A strong and healthy relationship between the Council and the Manager is essential.  It is the Council that stands for election by the citizens, therefore they provide the best understanding of what citizens value and seek.  The Manager, on the other hand, has the best understanding of the governmental organization and how best to marshal resources to deliver on Council priorities.

Let me pause here once again, to highlight specifically the role of the Mayor in the Council-Manager form of government.  In such cases, the Mayor is officially one of the Council members, responsible for conducting the meetings of the Council.  The Mayor is generally viewed as the leader of the elected officials and is often called upon to perform specific duties assigned uniquely to the Mayor.  In the Council-Manager form, the role of Mayor is largely symbolic, which contrasts to a Strong-Mayor form of government where the Mayor, not the City Manager, runs the day-to-day operations of the City.  Due to the public perception of the role of Mayor in most communities, it is a very important role and often the relationship between the Mayor and the Manager is one of the most important.

A Typical Day

So what does a typical day look like in the life of a City Manager?  Well, the first thing one should note is there is no typical day for a City Manager – that is actually one of the things that I love most about the job.  For me, more often than not, my typical week consists of numerous meetings – varying from meetings with the Mayor and Council members to residents or business owners seeking resolution to an issue.  Here is just a glimpse of my schedule from a few weeks ago:


  • City Council Morning Briefings
  • City Council Regular Public Meeting
  • Phone Interview with Search Firm Regarding Former Employee Seeking New Position
  • Ribbon Cutting for Local Business


  • Staff Meeting – Economic Development
  • Parks and Recreation Master Plan Update Focus Group Meeting
  • Senior Staff Meeting
  • Budget Committee Meeting
  • Parks and Recreation Master Plan Update Community Meeting


  • Staff Meeting – Department Directors
  • Meeting with Citizen on Issue
  • United Way Board Meeting
  • Meeting with Business Owner on Issue
  • City Audit Committee Meeting


  • Staff Meeting – Municipal Auditor
  • Staff Meeting – Real Estate Office
  • Roanoke Library Foundation Annual Meeting Presentation
  • Meeting with Business Owner on Issue
  • Staff Meeting – Economic Development
  • Staff Meeting – Grant Opportunity


  • Budget Committee Meeting
  • Staff Meeting – Human Resources
  • Meeting with Council Member
  • Meeting with Mayor to discuss Junteenth Event Planning
  • Ribbon Cutting for Local Business


  • Budget Committee Meeting

This post provides a glimpse into what a City Manager is and does and why.  If you are interested in learning more, I suggest looking at the brochure provided by ICMA. or you may want to drop me an email with any questions you might have.

-      Bob Cowell