Over the past couple of months, City Council sessions have had a few closed-session personnel discussions to address the progress of the Mercer Group's search for a new City Manager. (Patrick Baker is set to step down at the end of the budget year and to assume the role of City Attorney at that time.)
What's the City Council looking for in a new manager? According to their glossy recruiting brochure, a bachelors or masters degree in business or public administration, and ideally a professional credentialing in city management; five years of progressive experience at the assistant, deputy or chief city manager role (or "related experience"); experience in "infrastructure replacement" among other areas.
Here's the real key: "Further, the Council is seeking a person ... who has developed and fostered effective relationships with their governing body and someone who has effectively developed and managed a large number of internal and external relationships." And, of course, being "open to input from the community."
Being the manager of the City of Durham is not an easy post. Durham's neighborhoods and civic leaders are highly engaged and active in local government issues and have the ready ear of Council. A very good thing, and also an unusual one compared to many cities, where acute hearing loss tends to happen among elected officials a couple of months after elections. But it also means there are many more voices to listen to, and respond to -- and if you don't, you'll hear from citizen and Council alike.
Which is to say nothing about the Council -- which, even in its current configuration as an effective body with a generally strong membership -- is tough to please unanimously. The recent squabbles over Alston Avenue widening shows the occasional splits along what we've called the progressive and institutionalist wings.
Does this mean Durham needs a city manager who simply follows the received wisdom of the community and Council? Not necessarily. One can imagine how much different challenges like the drought situation might have turned out with leadership that was seasoned enough to recognize the precarious position of the city and region and to have raised the alarm early enough. Which is not a dig on Baker per se: Baker's done a really remarkable job for having no experience leading city government, though returning to the attorney's office is the right move.
Still, it points to the key of experience in Durham's new manager. The Bull City needs a CEO with both a willingness to listen and a willingness to analyze, absorb and act on information -- then set out a plan to move the city forward.
We'd add to the wishlist for the next manager one more key trait: ambition. The worst case scenario would be getting a city manager from B.F.E. for whom Durham would be the final stop on their career track, the "reach" destination for which they'd work a few years before retiring. Durham needs an active, engaged city manager, one who's looking to make the Bull City a proving ground before moving on to their next professional challenge.
Because -- thanks to the challenges above -- if you can manage Durham, you can manage any large American city.
Of course, no decision in Durham would be made without public input, and this one's no different where that's concerned. The finalists for the manager role will be announced today by the city, with a public forum to follow from 7:00 to 8:30pm tonight in the City Council chambers. Durhamites will have a chance to hear from all the finalists and ask their questions.
Unfortunately, I won't be there due to a business travel obligation today. If you go to the forum, post your thoughts to the comments here.