I work at Arizona State University’s College of Public Programs. We are developing a scholarship to encourage students to explore careers in service, since we are losing nearly three out of every five people working in the government and nonprofit ranks over the next decade. To highlight the need for such a program my boss, Debra Friedman, wrote a little ditty in The Arizona Republic. To underscore the issue, the piece focused on the retirement of longtime Phoenix City Manager Frank Fairbanks. And, being a model 21st century communicator, I posted the editorial’s link to my Facebook and Twitter pages.

The link was reliked, commented on, retweeted, and dugg. But, one particular tweet caught my eye:

@tdhurst has a reputation for being a little contrary from time to time, but (maybe) he had a point this time — Phoenix grew, but was it in a good or sustainable way? I’ve been thinking about that question all weekend, and this is what I’ve come up with: Making Phoenix grow wasn’t Mr. Fairbanks’ job.

Most cities west of the Mississippi have a council/manager form of city government, where the council is made up of elected officials and the manager is appointed by council. Under this system, when a policy is put forth by a majority vote of council, it becomes the job of the manager to budget for, plan for, and execute said policy. And, because the manager reports the council (not the voters), he or she is responsible for carrying out those policies regardless of whether or not the manager believes it is a good use of time or effort. Needless to say, there are times where this can be frustrating for city managers (which means it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that there is an informal monthly meeting of city managers from across the Valley of the Sun called the 4-3 Club).

So, what’s the recipe for a successful manager? Do you remember that Supreme Court case in 1964 when Justice Potter Stewart uttered the now-famous “I know it when I see it” phrase referring to pornography? Well, there is a unspoken rule among managers that the opposite is true of their profession. Said differently, one knows a good city manager when they don’t see them. Fairbanks had four decades of experience with the city of Phoenix, yet I can guarantee that eight out of 10 people have no idea who he is. He ran an organization with nearly 15,000 employees, but stayed out of headlines. The average lifespan for a job as city manager is five years; Fairbanks held the job for 20. Point is, the less you hear about your city manager, the better.

Take, for instance, Scottsdale. There has been quite a hullabaloo over in America’s Most Livable City. Manager John Little was fired last week, and now he’s hiring an attorney to fight the body that cut him loose. The circumstances would take a little more space than I’m allowed to explain, so I’ll whittle it down: They don’t get along. And, don’t forget that Fairbanks’ replacement comes with a little baggage of his own — something that caused Council Mike Johnson enough hesitation to vote against David Cavazos’ appointment.

So, I guess my answer to Tyler comes in two parts:

  1. Yes, Frank Fairbanks was extremely talented. This summer, Phoenix was named an All-American City, which only added to the portfolio of awards for outstanding management under Fairbanks’ leadership.
  2. Phoenix grew, but yes, maybe not in the best way. But, it is important to know that it wasn’t Fairbanks’ job to make the decision on the direction of the city, but rather to carry out the decisions made by council. If you or any resident of Phoenix are interested in the sustainable development of Phoenix for the future, get involved in city of Phoenix politics. A great way to start is to call your City Councilman and set up a meeting. Remember, you are their employer.

The sad reality is that local politics are still on the bottom rung of the “paid-attention-to-politically” ladder, but shouldn’t be. Healthcare reform has been grabbing all the headlines lately, but won’t enter into actuality for at least two years even if it passes. In contrast, Phoenix City Council will be voting before the end of the year on measures to encourage adaptive reuse that will have an immediate affect on us Downtown devotees by luring cool businesses, bars and other hot spots into the core of our city.

So, let’s allow our city manager to manage, and hold our elected leadership accountable for the future of Phoenix.

  • Upton Sinclair

    We are developing a scholarship to encourage students to explore careers in service, since we are losing nearly three out of every five people working in the government and nonprofit ranks over the next decade.

    We already know this? WTF are we giving the government TRILLIONS of dollars then?

    oh and you think Scottsdale is getting its act together? wait until the taxpayers are financing, for instance, a douchebag artist in Phoenix central by the name of David Therrien and his merry drunken men, to put on a show in TORONTO. How that is tax money well spent is BEYOND ME. It measured in the tens of thousands of dollars. Way to go Scottsdale. And this is happening while the state has billion dollar budget shortfalls. WTF is GOING ON HERE?

  • Thanks for the explanation. The council/manager form of government has never made much sense to me.

    So the City Manager has no real power? Their job is to carry out the duties of the council(wo)men who are hoping to appease their districts in hope of reelection? No wonder Phoenix’s city growth has been so disjointed.

  • The problem in Phoenix is that we have a weak mayor system, where the mayor only has a ceremonial leadership role as he is only one of 9 votes on city council. As a result, the mayor has almost no real power or legal authority to influence policies, programs or actions of the city council. This system stems from a Jacksonian view of politics— the belief that if politicians have few powers and many checks, then they can do relatively little damage. But, as Tyler points out, it also leads to a disjointed leadership.

    If anything, this gives greater power to the city manager, who is akin to a CEO of the city reporting to a Board of Directors (mayor and council). Basically, the council identify problems and the city manager determines the best way to resolve them. However, this points to the divide between leadership and management. No matter how good a city manager is (and Fairbanks was regarded by many to be among the best), they are still a manager, and not responsible for leadership. As a result, Phoenix has enjoyed comparatively efficient city services, but has often displayed a lack of vision.

    Weak mayor systems tend to work best in smaller and more homogeneous cities, where the majority of the citizens share common views and interests. This is no longer the case in Phoenix (if indeed it ever was). Phoenix is the biggest city in the US that still uses this system (LA changed in the 90s after the city practically collapsed after the riots). Dallas and Sand Diego are other 1M+ cities that have a similar system. Personally I think it is time the city politics grew up and reformed its mayor and council system to reflect is status as a diverse and populous metropolis.