“Most cities don’t do evaluations of city managers,” said Bill Garrett, executive director of the California City Management Foundation.
He said the increased use of employment agreements has stimulated the review process — when it does happen.
“More managers are being evaluated on a regular basis, but it’s still an awkward situation for a lot of councils and city managers,” Garrett said. “Even though it might be called for in the employment agreement, if the city manager doesn’t remind the council that it’s supposed to be done, many times it doesn’t get done.”
Too many city councils evaluate only when the city manager is in trouble and the council wants to terminate, he said.
Does it have to be this way?
COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE
Cities use annual manager evaluations as tools for accountability and communication.
“It’s important to have regular meetings and continued discussion throughout the year. It’s not a once-a-year ‘here’s your feedback’ situation,” said Jennifer L. Curtis, SPHR, human resources manager for Santa Clarita.
Santa Clarita evaluates its city manager each year for the previous year’s performance using a five-point rating scale that includes council policy, communication, financial management, leadership and community engagement.
In early 2008, city manager Ken Pulskamp completed a 360-degree evaluation process that included Pulskamp, city council, the executive team and management team.
“This process allowed the city manager to obtain feedback on his performance from varied sources including direct reports, subordinates and the city council,” said Curtis. The outcome, she said, was a more balanced and comprehensive view of his overall job performance.
“The city manager uses this information to determine whether he was effectively performing his job not just from the council’s perspective, but also from the perspective of the employee whom he leads,” she said.
Scott Mitnick, city manager of Thousand Oaks, is pleased with his city’s objective-driven evaluation process that includes his city council.
“Every year the city council does goal-setting. It reviews its mission statement, its customer service philosophy,” said Mitnick. “At the end of the year we do a status update on how we achieved all those things.”
“The review process is not an arbitrary one; there is some subjectivity to it, of course, but it really is driven by objectives,” he said.
Mitnick is reviewed annually by his city council. He praises the evaluation process as one of “continuous assessment” that allows regular feedback by council members.
“They’re not bashful about telling me what bothers them,” he said. “If the city council’s happy, the city manager is happy.”
APPROACH CAREFULLY, BUT DO APPROACH
Cities that perform annual manager evaluations are flexible.
“Every council has discretion regarding frequency and format,” said Folsom City Manager Kerry Miller. “There is no standardized manager evaluation format because the needs and expectations of every council are different.”
A council member’s background and experience level influences both the structure and outcome of the performance evaluation.
“Different councils have different cultures,” said Davis Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor.
Saylor says the danger for an inexperienced council is to view the evaluation as an “all or nothing” exercise: the city manager is either in or out
“This approach is faulty,” he said. Regular evaluations allow the council and manager to correct a problem in an early stage. The city manager might benefit from mentoring or a reappraisal of workload heaped on the manager by an over-enthusiastic, neophyte council member.
“A city manager is a human being trying to do a job,” Saylor said. “There has to be some flexibility as to how the council collectively views the city manager’s performance.”
In addition to its annual city manager evaluation, Davis will sometimes ask its manager to complete a self-appraisal as a way of documenting performance and clarifying expectations, said Saylor. The city uses a scoring process to assess eight dimensions of organizational management such as leadership and financial management. “It’s in the interest of the city manager to have effective and routine evaluations,” he said.
Annual goal-setting workshops are a valuable part of the evaluation process in Merced, said Mike Conway, public information officer.
“We’ve been holding workshops for at least a decade,” he said. The workshops, held at City Hall, are open to the public; Conway said the city council uses the workshops as an assessment tool to re-evaluate goals and ensure that “everyone operates with the same set of expectations.”
Conway said his city has yet to review its new city manager, John Bramble, who joined Merced in December, 2008. Merced has an annual performance review for its city manager, and Conway expects the city will continue this practice.
If your city needs help with performance evaluations, why not bring in an outsider?
“The newest trend in performance evaluations is use of a third-party facilitator,” said Garrett. Most facilitators are management consultants who have assisted a city council in team building in strategic planning, he said; there’s already an existing relationship.
“We recommend that the evaluation be handled by a facilitator,” Garrett said. “This takes the pressure off the council members as well as the city manager and provides more balanced structure to the entire process.”
Cost is a factor in using a third-party facilitator.
“It does cost to bring in a third party, and with today’s economic situation, it’s a cost that probably people would hesitate to do,” said Garrett. “Councils who truly want to have a good understanding with their managers are going to go ahead and have the process.”
PUTTING OFF THE INEVITABLE
When city managers or councils postpone an evaluation, the results aren’t always positive.
“The city manager can get blindsided by a council if the manager has not been reviewed on a regular basis,” Garrett said. “A good evaluation will clear the air between a council and a manager.”
Saylor said it’s hard to document poor performance with an empty personnel file. Regular feedback and evaluations provide a necessary paper trail and “can correct the problem at an early stage” before cities resort to termination as their only option.
This approach is favored by the International City/County Management Association, said public information director Michele Frisby.
“ICMA wholeheartedly supports the concept of routine performance evaluations (at least annual) for city, town, and county managers and administrators,” Frisby said.
“Such evaluations give elected officials an opportunity to discuss how the manager is meeting established goals and implementing policy and to identify issues before they become serious problems.”
A city council’s differing ideology and experience base can make it difficult to arrive at a consensus or even a context for the evaluation, said Saylor. “City councils bring individuals together who have a wide range of backgrounds,” he said. “That can be a challenge.”
Despite these differences, it’s important that city councils stay committed to the evaluation process, Saylor said, even though it’s not a high-profile activity. There’s less drama in goal-setting and paperwork, but council members need to transcend individual viewpoints for the greater health of the organization.
“We cannot be enslaved by the process,” Saylor said.
Contact Margaret T. Simpson at firstname.lastname@example.org