The Lowdown on City Managers

By Michael Philpott

If you’re anything like me, you read the recent headline “St. John’s city manager to retire after 29 years” ( and thought: What is a city manager, anyway? (And maybe also: They’ve been on the job for 29 years? But that’s just ambiguous wording.)

As it turns out, a city manager is something like a CEO, and council a Board of Directors – a separation of administrative and policy-making responsibilities. The roles do not operate in separate spheres, however; city managers sit on committees with council, bring recommendations to council on everything from street names to expropriation, and liaise between council and the bureaucracy. The system is mutually influential, and this makes the city manager a very important position.

The “council-manager” system we use is just one style of municipal governance. It first hit the scene in the Progressive Era as a response to corruption and inefficiency in local government. The earliest council-manager system is generally traced to 1908 Staunton, Virginia, though today it has caught on to become one of the two most common forms of municipal government in North America. The leading alternative, the “mayor-council” system, places the elected mayor in this administrative role, giving them far more individual control over city affairs.

In St. John’s, the council-manager system was recommended in a consultant’s report as early as 1946, but was not instituted until 1976. The role was held by E.P. Henley from 1976 to 1979, Neil Cohoon from 1979 to 1983, Frank Power from 1983 to 1992, and Bill Mann from 1993 to 1995, at which point the position was abolished under Mayor Andy Wells (a process described by a William Sheppard in 2008 as Wells’ “get rid of Mann plan”) (

Ron Penney held an analogous position as the city solicitor/chief commissioner from 1995 to 2011, and by the end he too was referred to as “city manager.” Bob Smart took over from 2011 to 2014, when he left the position amid rumours of “morale problems” at City Hall. Interestingly, these vague grievances were just cited as one source for ongoing behind-the-scenes tension ( Finally, Neil Martin filled the role in 2014 and will continue to do so until this March – a grand finale to his long career in civil service.

This brief history is all well and good, but who has served as city manager is not as important as who will.  The new city manager will hold considerable power, limited only by council. They will be the point of contact for the Office of Strategy and Engagement – the office responsible for gathering and communicating citizen input – as well as the deputy city managers of such crucial departments as Financial Management and Planning, Development & Engineering. They will be responsible for enacting our new municipal plan within the civil service. And last but not least, they will hold perhaps the most lucrative gig in municipal government.

More than a job, the city manager is an appointment of council, and it is imperative that it be the right one. They should be a person skilled in guiding cities through economic downturns, they should have a track record enacting and embodying progressive municipal plans, and perhaps most of all, they should be excited to engage meaningfully with the people of St. John’s.

Are there other must-haves for our next city manager? Are people in similar roles making proactive, positive changes in other cities? Let us know!

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