Managing a Municipality as a Career

There are towns and cities across the United States that operate under a manager-council form of government. The manager is a professional who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of municipal government and is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Council members are elected officials. Some titles used for managers are: town manager, city manager or general manager.

Whatever the title, the work is the same. I interviewed Scott Shanley, General Manager of Manchester, Connecticut (my boss), to talk about managing a municipality as a career.

MRC: How long have you been a General Manager?

SS: 30 years.

MRC: Describe the work of a General Manager.

SS: It’s a job of process, inclusion, managing debate, compromise, consensus in support of budgets, projects and constituent services. It’s negotiation and diplomacy. You have to be able to transcend your own ego.

MRC: What drew you to the work?

SS: I was working for a firm doing historic preservation in Portland, Maine. The firm was doing condo conversion which was causing displacement of residents. My job was to go to town council meetings and monitor the progress of the new ordinance governing conversions. I remember sitting there and thinking how much more interesting it would be to be sitting on the other side of the table (the government side). I wanted something I could be totally immersed in. As a general manager, you could be out every night of the week dealing with a different issue. That’s not a good idea but there is no lack of work to do.

MRC: What size towns have you worked in?

SS: I’ve worked in county government with a county population of hundreds of thousands. After that I found myself in regional hubs serving more suburban areas. But, in the daytime the number of people coming into those communities swelled. It’s ever-changing from one minute to the next; one minute you are dealing with budget and the next 5G issues, state issues to micro issues. I’ve worked in a small town in Maine with a population of 20,000, two towns in Connecticut with populations of 45,000 each and now Manchester with a population of about 58,000. It’s a dynamic line of work. You are learning constantly and never know what will happen next. You do gain transferrable skill sets you can use anywhere in the country.

MRC: What are the challenges in working in different-sized towns?

SS: The smaller the community, the more personal. In all, constituent services are important. You need to be as knowledgeable about road construction at the corner as you do about other town issues. In larger municipalities the elected officials deal with broader, higher-level issues.

MRC: What are the challenges of becoming a General Manager when moving to different states?

SS: It’s more challenging when you have children. Unlike private industry, towns don’t buy your house so you can move. You’re an independent contractor. Different parts of the country have different cultures. In Oregon, change was expected every three years. In New England, some things haven’t changed in 300 years. The structure is different in county government. In county government, for example, the sheriff, clerk’s office, tax collection and planning are under the county. In Manchester, they are under the town government. It can be a culture shock moving to different parts of the country. You need to understand why things are done the way they are.

MRC: What do you think is the biggest challenge overall for a General Manager?

SS: Sustaining credibility with the elected body that changes every two years and often does not have experience in government. You have to depend on their trust and confidence in you. It can be like being newly hired after an election. Budgets and negotiations are tough in recessions, tougher with elected officials. Timeframes have shrunk due to social media. If we can’t turn things around quickly, we lose support. But, there are some exceptions like our long-term schools renovation project.

The interview with General Manager Shanley provides some insight into what it’s like to be a municipal CEO. And, in my next article, he will offer some advice for someone thinking about managing a municipality as a career.

Mary Roche Cronin is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She is the Director of Human Services for the Town of Manchester, Connecticut and has held that position since January 2005. She is responsible for management of four divisions, provides contract oversight for community agencies receiving town funding, and represents the town on community, regional and statewide human services planning and advisory groups. She also provides oversight of the department budget and state and federal grant funding. She has a Master’s degree in Child Welfare from St. Joseph College in West Hartford, Connecticut and a Juris Doctorate from Western New England College School of Law in Springfield, Massachusetts. You can read her posts here.

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