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
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
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
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!