The governance system used by most California cities including Del Mar is known as the Council-Manager model. Governor Hiram Johnson and the early 20th century Progressive Movement encouraged California cities to resist the strong mayor model that was associated with the spoils system in many cities in the East. In essence it resembles the corporate model by the City Council hiring a professional manager to administer the vision, policies and budget adopted by the Council. The City Manager works for the Council and city employees work under the Manager. Put simply, the Council decides where to go, the Manager creates options for how to get there.
Over the years, Del Mar appears to have altered the model somewhat with more and more administrative decision making being escalated to the Council’s agenda. Some of this comes from our tradition of very active citizen participation, creating a push for more tactical items to be decided by our Council. This creates two problems: too little reliance on staff member expertise and too little time for the Council to deliberate on policy and strategy.
We encourage the Council and City Manager to discuss how to rebalance Council-Manager model.
Del Mar has always been fortunate to attract very talented staff members, partly because working in a small city gives them many opportunities to build their competencies working on a wide variety of issues instead of being “siloed” in narrow specialities. We could benefit more from staff capabilities by expecting them to carry out more functions without having to escalate operational matters to the Council agenda. Why use Council time on such items as replacing fire department radios, wordsmithing letters, dog park hours, tree maintenance, letter to state agency, temporary sign placement, contract for portable restroom services, accepting donations, public information contracts, etc. Of course staff could make such tactical decisions subject to oversight by the City Manager who is accountable to the Council. Council Members too often use meeting time to dig into details and complexities of governmental regulations that have already been thoroughly researched by staff members with expertise. More respect for staff competence would lead to more deliberation on policy and strategic direction.
Navigating Del Mar’s future progress could benefit from freeing up more time for the Council to engage in strategic planning about how to handle major challenges and finding creative opportunities. We face many daunting existential challenges involving our bluffs, sea level rise, climate change, fire exposure, dangerous train tracks, business health, affordable housing stock, and financial stability. Some of these are local issues but most involve gaining cooperation from public and private entities outside of our borders. Our Council Members need to have time and energy to exert our interests in these larger arenas.
This is a good time to think big about our future and how to get there.