Monday , 24 October 2016

City Manager Politics Get Strained Not Only McKinney, But Other DFW Cities

Serving as city manager seems like a tough gig. You have to oversee the operations of an entire city. Your areas of responsibility touch nearly every aspect of the public’s life. From the water we drink to the streets we drive on and everything in between, the city manager is responsible for it all.

With that job comes a certain set of expectations and pressures. You’re expected to perform under intense scrutiny from the public, the city council that hired you and from the media.

Take a quick glance at any local media outlet on an average morning and you’re likely to see another story about some city in DFW that’s having an issue with their city manager. Headlines like, “Irving city manager finalist doesn’t want the job, council members say,” “Dallas council clamors for change with A.C. Gonzalez’s hiring — but what does that mean?”, “Former Arlington city manager’s evaluation reveals concerns,” and “Irving City Council members may have improperly picked finalist for city manager” are just a brief sampling of the city manager-related issues that exist in many DFW cities.

McKinney has had it’s own share of city manager issues since Jason Gray (pictured at top) took over in March 2011. On alone, recent headlines like, “City Manager Responds to Accusations Raised by Watchdog PAC”, “City Councilman Rebuts `Rumors, `Misinformation’ About City Manager” and “City Manager’s Performance Review Reveals Divided Opinion By City Council” reveal the unrest that exists surrounding Gray.

That doesn’t include any of the tumult that surrounded Gray’s firing of Doug Kowalski as chief of police.

Words like tumult, turmoil and unrest seem to be found when reading about many city mangers in DFW. Take a look at Dallas and the recent hiring process of A.C. Gonzalez. Last May, Mary Suhm resigned after eight years as Dallas’ city manager. A.C. Gonzalez, who served as assistant city manger for 14 years, was tabbed as interim city manager before recently being approved as city manager on a permanent basis.

Reports at the time of Gonzalez’s approval showed that his permanent hiring was met with some trepidation amongst the Dallas city council members. Dallas City Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates said at the time, “I, too, will be voting for you, but I have to be honest and say it’s with some apprehension, hesitation and concern.”

Council members used terms like “culture change” and “increased transparency.” Dallas’ search for a permanent city manager included candidates from outside Dallas’ city hall, but the council members ultimately chose Gonzalez to lead Dallas.

In Irving, City Manager Tommy Gonzalez was removed from his post in April 2013 amidst controversy. Gonzalez’s management style was considered to be a contributing factor to his departure. The Dallas Morning News reported at the time of Gonzalez’s departure that, “Gonzalez will not be paid severance unless he is terminated before year’s end. However, the city will forgive the remaining payments on a $150,000 loan it made to him in 2009. The city also will cease annual housing payments it made under his old contract, which expires May 1.”

Irving’s search for a new city manager wasn’t without controversy as well. On Tuesday, the presumed choice for Irving’s city manager position said that he removed his name from consideration because of “deep problems” within Irving’s city council.

City manager turnover is not uncommon, given the nature of the position. According to a study from the Texas City Management Association (TCMA), “the average (mean) tenure of city managers over the 30-year period was 4.99 years.”

That study covers all city managers in Texas from 1980-2009. Dr. Mike Castro, City Manager of Jersey Village, conducted the study as part of his doctoral thesis. Dr. Castro’s study also found that, “city manager tenure has been steadily decreasing since 1999, with the low point registered in 2007 at 3.71 years.”

Dr. Castro’s study showed that city council member turnover is a strong contributor to the “separation” of a city manager from his or her position. “In one of the more significant findings of the study, I found that city council turnover significantly influences city manager separation,” he states in his study. “A turnover of a single council member increases the probability of city manager separation by 35 percent.”

Dr. Castro’s study also states that city managers in smaller cities are most likely to retain their job for a long period of time. “All other influences being equal, I found that managers in cities with a population between 10,000 and 50,000 experience the lowest probability of separation,” the study reads.

A look at the tenures of the city managers of the largest cities in DFW shows a slightly different picture. While several cities have experienced (or are set to experience) city manager turnover, others have long-serving city managers. Below is a list of the 13 largest cities in DFW and when each city’s city manager began to serve.

  • Dallas – A.C. Gonzalez – 2014
  • Fort Worth – Tom Higgins – 2011 (Set to retire soon)
  • Arlington – Trey Yelverton – 2012
  • Plano – Bruce Glasscock – 2011
  • Garland – William Dollar – 2003
  • Irving – Steve McCullough – 2013 (Interim)
  • Grand Prairie – Tom Hart – 1999
  • Mesquite – Ted Barron – 1995
  • McKinney – Jason Gray – 2011
  • Frisco – George Purefoy – 1987
  • Carrollton – Leonard Martin – 2001
  • Denton – George Campbell – 2006
  • Richardson – Dan Johnson – 2012

The average city manager tenure among all 13 cities is 7.3 years, with George Purefoy’s 26-year tenure as Frisco city manager raising the average by almost 1.5 years. Remove Purefoy from the list and the average tenure is 5.75 years. While that number is high in comparison, seven of the cities, Dallas, Ft. Worth, Arlington, Plano, Irving, Richardson and McKinney,  have city managers that have served less than three years.

In McKinney, Gray has been a topic of much discussion lately. He’s been accused of “cronyism and corruption” by the Watchdog PAC, had several council members question his job performance in his yearly review, and had others jump to his defense.

Gray is scheduled to have another performance review this month. Gray’s most recent review showed that he has at least three members of the council in his corner. As long as he has four votes of confidence from the council, he’s not going anywhere.

But if one council member reverses course and gives Gray a negative review, it begs the question: Will McKinney soon join Dallas, Irving, Arlington and other cities with a controversial city manager turnover? We’ll soon find out.

Photo By TSB’s Sawyer Erickson

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