Milford city council reviews council-manager form of government

MILFORD — Milford’s city council went back to school last week for a virtual lecture on the council-manager form of government.

City Manager Mark Whitfield said the lesson, delivered July 27, arose from a request following a retreat last fall.

“Given that five council persons are fairly new, it also seemed like a good topic for review,” he said.

The session covered “the roles of council people, the mayor and elected officials as well as the city manager, the clerk and the police chief, since those three people all report to city council.”

Vice Mayor Jason James said he was happy the session finally happened, noting its benefit to both veterans and those new to the council.

“You can read the charter, but without hearing it from an outside source, sometimes it doesn’t line up in your thinking,” he said.

Mr. Whitfield brought in Professor Larry Comunale of Villanova University’s Department of Public Administration and Steve Wiesner, who developed a curriculum for newly elected officials for the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs. Both have over a decade of experience working as local public administrators in Pennsylvania.

According to one of the first slides the duo presented, 73% of the nation’s municipalities with 2,500 or more people and 66% of the country’s municipalities with a AAA Bond Rating make use of the council-manager form of leadership.

Mr. Wiesner identified the mayor, the sole city-wide elected official in Milford, as the public face of the city, the leader of its city council meetings and its chief communicator.

“The role of the communicator is so important to make sure that everything happens according to how the city wants it to happen and according to what the plan for the city is,” he said.

The mayor sits atop the three “levels” Mr. Comunale identified as a metaphor for the process of “policy-setting.” At the 30,000-foot level, the mayor is joined by the council members. The manager is a member of both this highest level and the 10,000-foot one below it, which also includes the city’s various department heads. All other city employees exist at the ground level.

“The manager, every once and a while, will drift into the 30,000-foot level of policy-making when he or she is presenting policy alternatives to the city council and the mayor to solve problems,” Mr. Comunale said. “Once that policy is set by the council, (the manager) immediately drops down to that 10,000-foot level and is in charge of and responsible for executing the policies that have been decided on by the council.”

Mr. Weisner said that department heads, who are responsible for coordinating employees at the ground level, report directly to the manager. He said fealty to this chain of command is key to the city’s ongoing functionality.

“The manager is appointed not anointed,” Mr. Comunale said. They are “in charge of carrying out the legislative actions of the council, and whether or not the manager agrees with those legislative actions, they must be carried out with enthusiasm and the manager must convey that also to the employees.”

The council-manager form can be traced back to the late 19th century when the National League of Cities published its model city charter, which Milford’s charter is based on.

“All powers of the city shall be vested in the city council except as otherwise provided by law or this charter,” according to the model city charter.

“That is the essence of where power lies in the council-manager form of government,” Mr. Wiesner said.

Mr. Comunale said “the city council devolves authority to the managers,” which is an important concept because to a large degree “the powers of the city manager are actually given to them by the city council.”

In addition to carrying out daily tasks on the council’s behalf, Mr. Comunale identified the ability to hire and fire city employees and make financial decisions as key for the city manager, per Milford’s charter.

“It’s very clear in the charter that the intent was to delegate the administration of personnel and financial decisions to the manager,” who, Mr. Comunale said, “enforces all municipal regulations, administers all personnel and financial decisions and then makes policy recommendations.”

Several councilmembers expressed gratitude for the time, effort and knowledge Mr. Comunale and Mr. Weisner put forward.

“I’m a new council member,” said Councilman Andrew Fulton of Milford’s second ward. “I do appreciate you coming forward and giving us this training. It helps me. I was glancing through the charter as you were going through some of the slides.”

Councilman Todd Culotta, also of the second ward, was grateful for the resource as well and wanted to know if he could follow up with questions in the future.

“Do you mind if we ever reach out to you with quick questions or anything like that,” he asked, “or do you prefer that we do it through Mark, the city manager?”

Mr. Comunale said Mr. Culotta was free to reach out, but “If you raise a question to me, I would be bound by the code of ethics to let Mark know that you called me.”