A Real-Life Love Story: City Managers and City Planners

Okay, so maybe not a "love story" per se, but city managers and city planners have a unique relationship. We think this is an important dynamic in local government management — and arguably one that has been under-explored.

Many APA professionals work in city and county government, and those agencies are defined by departments led by a series of professionally distinctive fields. Each provide critical leadership to cities and counties and represent an impressive team of experts for any community.

That said, we feel city managers and city planners share a complex dynamic due to a variety of reasons.

It is so common that the roles of each profession overlap within the community to the point where we may find we are stepping on each other's toes. It often begins with our education and training, where there is overlap between MPAs, MUPs, public policy degrees, and a variety of skillsets including consensus building, public outreach, policy creation and community building.

Furthermore, we often find ourselves holding positions and titles in each of the respective ICMA and APA fields at some point in our local government career. Personally we have both migrated within these fields, and have heard firsthand from dozens of other managers and planners about their journey in local government too. We are learning this is even more common than we realized — and a topic on the minds of many city managers and planners across the United States.

Additionally, although every department serves as a public policy advisor at times, this is a core, everyday role for both the city manager and city planner. These roles regularly advise the elected and appointed officials and provide decision-support systems to the legislative process. Often times the city planner and their team provides considerable support to the community's various boards, commissions, and deliberative bodies.

Alongside managing a service provider agency, these roles are also tasked with managing the community's politics and legislative agenda. Things get even murkier when we start to talk about roles and responsibilities in economic development.

So — everyone would likely agree that it's critical for the relationship between city manager and city planner to be effective and collaborative. But how do we achieve that? How is this relationship impacted when roles cross paths or decisions on policies or proposals collide?

Ultimately that's what we've tasked ourselves with finding out, and why we keep talking about this topic.

So far we have found 5 Rules for an Effective Relationship.

  • Have a structured development review process.
  • Have clearly defined roles.
  • Communication is key.
  • Don't let it get to you.
  • Remember you are on the same team.

That's our take today. But we're not satisfied yet.

Since our initial presentation at the 2016 National Planning Conference in Phoenix, we have been sharing our experience and asking other local government professionals to join the discussion. We have been impressed and motivated by the feedback we've gotten, the stories we've heard, and the common experiences we all obviously share (but don't always talk about).

Contact the Authors

Aimee Nassif, AICP
Planning and Development Services Director, City of Chesterfield, Missouri

Drew Awsumb, AICP
Deputy Director of Community Development, City of Highland Park, Illinois

Top image: Thinkstock photo.

August 23, 2016

By Aimee Nassif, AICP, Drew Awsumb, AICP