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In search of a city manager

Published Oct. 10, 2005

Within St. Petersburg's manager recruitment profile, the city talks of an administrator who is "proactive" and "able to build consensus" and "a skillful negotiator" and "has outstanding supervisory skills" and is "a leader." At the same time, it calls for someone who "maintains a low profile in the community." Needless to say, no city manager has an easy job.

As the St. Petersburg City Council on Tuesday begins interviewing finalists for the city's top administrative post, council members would do well to focus on what makes their type of government work best. For a council-manager government to function well, it needs an administrator who acts first as a professional. A professional administrator looks at a proposed development, for example, and determines whether it is consistent with planning goals, whether it will fit appropriately in the neighborhood, whether it will have adequate services and improve the community. The administrator is the one who has to be able to stand back from the pressures of political connections and give an honest assessment. The elected council then can make its own decision.

For St. Petersburg, the council-manager form has brought varying degrees of success and problems. Under Ray Harbaugh and Alan Harvey, the manager took a higher profile and more ambitious role. Under Robert Obering, the manager often let the council and many of his own lieutenants take the lead.

To the extent that Obering was promoted to maintain consistency, the opportunity for the current council is to bring a fresh perspective to City Hall. If the past two elections have taught city government anything, it is that residents are ready for a change. The level of mistrust has been high at times, for which administrators have to accept some blame. Though their intentions may have been good, city administrators too often have given residents the impression that access to City Hall is easier for those who wear a pin-stripe suit and carry a set of development plans.

It is disappointing that the candidates who council members begin interviewing Tuesday do not include a woman. But the range of experience still is impressive, including one who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia. As council members ask questions of budgeting and management technique, they need also to look more broadly. A city is not defined just by its tax base, but by its libraries and recreation centers, its families and neighborhoods, its heritage and its dreams. A city manager has to balance the books, of course, but also has to inspire hope.