Civics 103: The City Manager

Submitted by

Suanne Z. Thamm

Reporter-News Analyst


(Fourth in a series of articles on local government)

This YouTube video prepared by the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA) provides a brief, somewhat rosy overview of the role of the manager in the community. For our purposes, it serves as an example of the work and responsibilities of a city manager.


Does this model hold true in Fernandina Beach? The role of the manager is to partner with the commission and execute their policy decisions to provide services essential for an efficient and attractive city. But does the city commission agree with that?  Or does the city commission see itself in that role?  Generally speaking you find that the people who wrote the Charter seemed uncomfortable ceding so much authority to the city manager.  Instead of using the term “chief executive officer,” the city Charter defined the manager as the person who “shall be the administrative head of the municipal government under the direction and supervision of the city commission.”  Perhaps this is just semantics; or perhaps it expresses an uneasiness with a fully vested executive and prefers to leave the responsibility vague, allowing some commissioners to interpret it as more of a coordinator of departments or a foreman who executes the orders of the city commission.

The 2007 Charter Review Committee tackled this ambiguity straight on, recommending that existing language be replaced with the term chief executive.  To date, that change of language, along with other changes that were agreed to by the City Commission, have yet to make it into the Charter.  While many of the recommended changes required a citizen referendum, many others did not.  Therefore, when you consult the version of the City Charter that appears on Municode and the city’s website, you will still see the archaic language that the members of the Charter Review Committee thought had been changed several years ago.  We serve no whine before its time.

So whether you call the manager an administrator, coordinator, foreman or chief executive, his or theoretically, her duties are spelled out in some detail in Section 29, which I paraphrase here:

(a)Enforce all laws and ordinances;

(b)Hire and fire subordinates based solely on merit and fitness;

(c)Control and direct supervise over all current and future departments and divisions of the municipal government under this Charter, except for operations of the City Attorney and the City Clerk;

(d)Enforce public utility franchises;

(e)Attend all meetings of the city commission, and of its committees, with right to take part in the discussions, but without having a vote;

(f)Recommend to the commission that it adopt such measures as s/he may deem necessary or expedient in the interests of the city;

(g)Prepare and submit to the city commission an annual budget; keep the commission fully apprised of the city’s financial condition and needs of the city on an ongoing basis;

(h)Perform such other duties as may be prescribed under this Charter or as may be required by ordinance or resolution of the city commission;

(i)Serve as the city’s purchasing agent.


The 2007 Charter Review Committee added another duty: sign all contracts and agreements as authorized on behalf of the City by Charter, ordinance or resolution.

None of these duties would seem to be particularly controversial or unusual in a city manager’s job description.  But then, this is Fernandina Beach.  Other than keeping his 5 bosses happy, the most important task facing a new city manager is wresting control of the city bureaucracy from entrenched interests both within and without the city government apparatus.

The city manager oversees and directs the city’s workforce through a series of departments, which are funded via either the general fund or enterprise funds:  Airport, Community Development, Finance, Fire Rescue, Golf Club, Human Resources, Information Technology, Maintenance (Facilities, Fleet, Street), Fernandina Harbor Marina, Parks and Recreation, Police and Utilities.   Also, the city manager must deal with or through a series of standing and ad hoc advisory boards that review and recommend actions to him and the city commission.

A consequence of both commissioner term limits and turnover in the city manager position is the relative independence exercised by the departments.  Those departments physically located at City Hall have a greater sense of working for the city manager than those that are located further away or those that manage their own enterprise funds. Each city manager faces the challenge of reigning in departments that may not share the same priorities or sense of urgency in certain initiatives as the city manager. Indeed, some departments have traditionally seemed more concerned with maximizing profits for their particular fund than with customer service.

City government has been described as a series of independent fiefdoms that do their own thing with little concern for their impact on other departments or the city as a whole. The resulting culture of every-department-for-itself is fertile ground for exploitation by citizen gadflies and those city commissioners on a mission to micromanage the city manager, or to keep certain core constituencies happy, or both. To succeed in this environment the city manager must become adept at “Whack-A-Mole.” Big issues like strategic planning and budgeting do not seem as important to some commissioners as dumpster placement at Main Beach or restroom problems at the Martin Luther King Center.

Because the City Commission has seemed inconsistent over the years with its approach to strategic planning and city manager evaluation the manager is in the position of constantly seeking three votes to remain employed. Through its  intransigence and incomplete understanding of the role of the city manager, often the City Commissioners have unwittingly transformed the government bureaucracy into an adhocracy. The job of city manager has devolved into meeting the demands or expectations of five individual bosses, as opposed to responding to priorities and goals set by the commission as a body, hopefully acting on behalf of the citizens. This is exactly the opposite of how things are supposed to work, because the commissioners only have legal authority to direct the manager when they act collectively in a public meeting.

So why doesn’t the city manager point this out to the city commission? Since he (no point to add “or she” because it has always been “he” in Fernandina Beach) is an at- will employee, meaning that he can be terminated without cause at any time, that might not be a wise career move. Nor would it be smart to single out a commissioner for violating the City Charter when that commissioner deals directly with city employees without securing permission from the manager first. If convicted of such an act, the commissioner could be jailed or fined, but I’m willing to bet that the city manager filing the charge would be dealing with a new title:  former city manager.

Over the last 40 years, the city has had 17 city managers, if you include interim or acting city managers. This figure is a bit misleading, because some managers have actually served a fair amount of time:


  • 1973-83         Grady Courtney
  • 1984-89         Ferris Jones
  • 1990-94         Larry Myers
  • 2006-11         Michael Czymbor

The most tumultuous time for Fernandina Beach city managers was between 1995-2002, when the city had 7 city managers:  Zachary Zoul, Jerry Greeson (interim), Richard Diamond, Fred Hays, Andy Barton, and Scott Moye (interim).  There was only one city commissioner who served through that entire period: Ron Sapp.  Another city commissioner, the late Robert Rogers, served during 5 of these 7 years.

The city manager in Fernandina is our local version of Philippe Pettit, a high-wire artist who must maintain a perfect balance between political factions while juggling current and future priorities along with budgetary constraints. This is why city managers rarely serve more than 3-7 years before getting bounced out over a change in political direction instituted by a newly elected commission. The city manager must understand the importance of politics to his successful job performance without becoming a political player himself. The minute it appears that a city manager is too closely aligned with one or more commissioners, storm clouds begin appearing on the horizon.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the city manager must treat all commissioners equally, if he hopes to have a chance of surviving long term. This is much easier said than done.  One way for him to avoid charges of favoritism is to make sure that all commissioners receive the same information at the same time, either via public meetings or written communications.  Once the rumor mill cranks up based upon information provided to only one commissioner, problems arise. Of course, such a strategy assumes that all city commissioners are equally willing to meet and discuss issues with the city manager. That has not always been the case here in Fernandina Beach, where some commissioners use work-arounds at City Hall to avoid dealing with the city manager. Such a state of affairs subverts the Charter and makes a mockery of the commission-manager form of government.

But most importantly, the city manager must take control of the city bureaucracy.  City employees, the public, other Charter Officers and the Commissioners must respect the city manager’s authority and responsibility for running the city. Without such respect, the city manager cannot do the job entrusted to him under the Charter.

(Next installment Civics 104:  the city attorney)

June 4, 2012 4:20 p.m.

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Eric Bartelt
Eric Bartelt(@ericbarteltgmail-com)
11 years ago

Well done, Suanne! I’m really enjoying your Civics course.