There is so much variety to the profession of city manager that “there is no such thing as a typical day,” says Larry Stevens, who stepped into that role for the city of Edmond in 2002. “A big chunk is dealing with personnel matters, working with council members and upper management staff, and serving as liaison for and buffer between city employees, city council members, and even the community to some degree.”
Michael Spurgeon, Broken Arrow’s city manager, describes the job as multi-faceted. His day may consist of staff meetings, leadership team sessions, budget supervision, development project meetings and health benefit meetings, along with more abstract tasks like making sure goals are on track, and, always, addressing the issues that citizens raise.
The job is all about collaboration, says Lawton’s city manager Michael Cleghorn.
“The mayor, council and I work very closely,” he says. “I’m a contracted employee to the council along with the city attorney, judge and clerk. I work for the elected body, and everyone else works for me while our council provides the agenda, resolutions and ordinances that we put into motion day to day.”
But there’s always a bit of red tape. Funding a municipality is challenging in Oklahoma, explains Norman McNickle, Stillwater’s city manager. The Oklahoma Tax Commission does not allow cities to collect on property tax for operations, so cities “live and die by sales tax” to obtain revenue, he says.
Stevens continues about the rigors of the position: “A piece of this job is crisis management. We try to do a lot of planning and proactive anticipation, but there are things that qualify under major events, so you drop other stuff and work on that.”
COVID-19 did a number on everyone, and city managers were not exempt from the stress.
“Back in March of 2020, there was no game plan – no section or chapter like there is for floods and natural disasters,” says Spurgeon. “Decisions to make range from protecting employees, exposure issues, providing guidance to the community to protect their health – all while trying to keep businesses open. It challenged all of us to look differently at things and changed the way we do business. Now team meetings become inherent in everything we do, and overall, it’s been very positive because we learned to be very productive on Zoom.”
Spurgeon says that going forward, emergency management plans are in place in case of flare-ups and future challenges.
Preparing to Lead
Becoming a city manager can happen in a variety of ways.
“There are many paths to becoming a city manager and often, the role is filled by someone who has proven leadership skills for the community already – such as the fire or police chief or economic development director,” says Spurgeon. “Another traditional route is to start in a management intern position and work your way up until you’ve got the skill set and experience needed to move up in that organization, or in another community. That is the route that many city managers take.”
For some, becoming a city manager starts with military service, a degree in public administration, or even a Master of Business Administration.
But, says Stevens, “the way to become a city manager is a city council hires you – whatever your background.”