City managers in Charlotte to celebrate 100 years of effective government

Twenty years ago as a student at the University of California, Berkeley, Kim Toyama became enamored with the council-manager form of government that has been adopted by many U.S. cities and counties but is nearly nonexistent in his native Japan.

This week, Toyama, who teaches public administration at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, made the overseas flight to Charlotte to learn more about innovative practices of council-manager government at the 100th annual conference of the International City/County Management Association.

“It is a more efficient, effective government,” he said.

He’s joined more than 3,000 local government managers and administrators from around the world who have taken over the Charlotte Convention Center for the centennial celebration. Discussions through Wednesday will range from legalizing marijuana and preventing violence from escalating to being a politically astute manager and finding a life during retirement.

The Convention Center’s main lobby was staged as a front porch, with rocking chairs and wicker sofas. Sweet iced tea was served.

It’s the third time Charlotte has hosted the conference, the first two in 1988 and 2003. More than 300 city and county employees have volunteered to help run the conference.

Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have practiced the council-manager form of government for decades. In that arrangement, city council members and county commissioners set policy and hire a manager to administer it and run city and county staffs.

The approach was created at the turn of the 20th century as a reaction by reformers to problems in larger cities run by a strong mayor-council form where elected mayors were given almost total administrative authority. That created, critics say, political bosses whose unguarded authority led to corruption and patronage.

In 1914, eight of 31 city managers in the country met in Springfield, Ohio. They formed the City Manager Association and began to revolutionize local government by urging municipalities to hire professional managers to operate government. Councils hire – and can fire – managers.

Ten years later, the CMA added International to its name when the association included members from Canada. Its members now come from such countries as Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, China, Slovakia, Japan and Denmark. In 1927, Iredell County was the first U.S. county to hire a manager.

Many of the foreign countries are represented in Charlotte this week. But mostly they come from all over America.

Bonnie Svrcek, deputy city manager of Lynchburg, Va., and a past ICMA president, has been coming to the yearly conference for 20 years.

“It’s a family reunion,” Svrcek said. “When you can have a job the day before an election and may not have it the day after, we tend to move around a lot. This is a way to get re-engaged with your colleagues.”

Greg Nyhoff, in city management for 19 years, was hired as the city manager of Oxnard, Calif., three months ago. The Charlotte conference is his second.

“This is a place where you come and find the most innovative research,” Nyhoff said. “We use best practices, but this is the place where you motivate your organization to achieve much higher levels of efficiency and effectiveness.”

Charlotte is Indio, Calif., City Manager Dan Martinez’s third conference. From his first conference in Phoenix, he returned home with an idea to create a strategic recovery plan from the recession. Last year in Boston, it was regionalism. He persuaded his council to close its animal shelter and partner with Riverside County’s “modern, state-of-the-art shelter. It’s saved us half a million dollars a year,” Martinez said.