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Council-Manager Model:
Revisiting Responsibilities

Bud Emerson | Klish Way


In order to calibrate our expectations of our city government it might be useful to revisit the form of government we have adopted in Del Mar, the “council-manager” model (CM). The other predominant form used in many large municipalities is the “mayor-council” model, often referred to as the “strong mayor” system.

Under the CM form the elected council members are responsible for the legislative function, which means setting policies, adopting ordinances, appropriating funds, and developing an overall vision for the city. The professional manager, appointed by the council, is responsible for the executive function, implementing council priorities by hiring staff and managing day-to-day operations. One way to think about this structure is that the council is like a board of directors with the mayor chairing the board, and the city manager is the CEO, hired to provide professional management to the board. The city manager is responsible to, hired by, and can be dismissed only by the entire council, not the mayor. The council exercises power on behalf of citizens instead of shareholders.

Del Mar City Manager, Scott Huth, says, “The City Council role is the most important role. It is the representative body of the community that determines the local and regional needs of its residents, sets goals, makes general policy, and exercises its responsibility to retain and enhance the special character of Del Mar based on the Community Plan. One of the City Council’s most effective roles is dealing with the “big picture” items. These “big-picture” items are generally the most difficult to deal with because of competing interests or different values within the Community. There are several administrative and discretionary items that the City Council also needs to attend to as part of their role to keep the business of local government moving.”

This council-manager model was invented as part of the “good government” movement during the progressive era in the early 20th century. It was designed to deal with instances of corruption and unethical activity where special interests could grease the pathway to get favorable decisions for themselves instead of the public interest. The model separates the political process and the managerial process, thereby combining strong political leadership of elected officials with the strong managerial know-how of an appointed manager.

It is widely believed that the best-managed and cleanest local governments are not strong mayor governments, but council-manager governments. Many studies show that CM cities are more likely to have greater efficiency, sounder finances, and stronger management performance. And they are more likely to pursue long-term goals, use strategic planning, base service delivery on need, have ethics codes, and produce more innovations.

Del Mar embraces citizen committees more than many cities as an important way to inform the Council on needs and policies. Huth says, ”Del Mar, being a small, involved community, tends to have more interaction with the service delivery and operations than many other council-manager organizations. It is that interaction that we embrace to have transparency in government and to expand the City’s resources. As a manager, one must be careful that the individual’s need (albeit important) is not affecting our ability to provide for the needs of the entire community.”

Huth sums it up nicely: “Local government is a very dynamic environment, and it is very complex to manage both the day to day issues and operations, while trying to stay focussed on short and long term goals or the “bigger-picture” items like the future of the community. There is nothing easy about governing.”


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