I. The Need for Professional Municipal Administration

Wisconsin has always enjoyed good honest government at the local level and some people would maintain that if the old procedures worked in the past, why shouldn't they work in the future. The world, however, is changing and what used to work can no longer meet the standards of effectiveness, efficiency, and accountability now being demanded. First, local governments are complex organizations that require expertise in personnel, planning, finance, and intergovernmental relations and an administrative structure that provides coordination of municipal services. Second, communities throughout Wisconsin are increasingly facing global economic competition. Their abilities to compete depend not only on private sector initiatives, but on sophisticated and aggressive public efforts as well. The need for professional municipal administration is not a matter of the failure of local government, but rather of adapting to changing conditions by increasing the capacity of municipalities to provide effective and efficient services.

II. Options Available to Wisconsin Cities, Villages, and Towns

A. Cities

Cities without administrators have essentially two options. They can remain under Chapter 62 of the Wisconsin State Statutes and establish the position of administrator by local ordinance or they can choose to operate under Chapter 64 with a city manager.

Cities remaining under Chapter 62 can establish the position of administrator by charter ordinance (2/3rds vote) or by simple ordinance. The duties of the administrator can be tailored to fit the particular needs of the city, although there are certain responsibilities that should be included in all ordinances, especially in the areas of personnel and budgeting. The position of the mayor remains, except that responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the city is transferred to the administrator.

Cities adopting the council-manager form of government under Chapter 64 must do so by charter ordinance. Chapter 64 describes the major responsibilities of the manager and the council. It makes no reference to a mayor and the president of the council is the highest elected official (although the city may designate the council president to carry the title of mayor). Chapter 64 makes a clear distinction between the administrative role of the manager and the legislative role of the council. The manager is hired and can be dismissed by the council by majority vote.

The council-manager form has the advantages of a clear separation of administrative and legislative responsibility and of being statutorily recognized. The administrator form has the advantages of retaining the position of mayor and of being more flexible with regard to specific community needs.

B. Villages

Villages have similar options. They can remain under Chapter 61 and establish the administrator position by simple or charter ordinance or they can establish the manager position by adopting Chapter 64 by charter ordinance. The main difference between villages and cities is that the position of village president remains essentially the same, no matter whether an administrator or a manager position is established.

C. Towns

Towns may establish the position of town administrator according to the terms of Chapter 60.37 (3). Towns may share an administrator.

III. The Advantages of an Administrator

A. Expertise

Municipal administrators are trained to operate cities, villages, and towns. They are professionals in the same way that company executives, school superintendents, doctors, and attorneys are professionals. Most of them have master's degrees in public administration, with training in budgeting, finance, personnel, labor relations, intergovernmental affairs, public works, community and economic development, and public safety. They gain administrative experience in other communities before they are ready to assume the position of municipal administrator. They are part of a network of expertise and they know where to go to get the correct answers. They are committed to municipal administration as a career. The community's success is their success and, consequently, they have a very strong interest in doing the best job possible.

B. Responsive Organizational Structure

Administrators are responsible for the day-to-day operations of their municipalities. It is their responsibility to bring coordination to the provision of municipal services. They work to build a municipal team of department heads and other employees. They establish and enforce policies in the areas of personnel, purchasing, cash management, risk management, planning, and employee development in order to provide more efficient and effective government.

Having an administrator provides more direct accountability to the board or council for the proper operation of municipal services. Elected officials know who is responsible. A dissatisfied board or council can easily dismiss the administrator.

C. Stronger Boards and Councils

Elected boards and councils benefit in several ways from an administrator. First, they now can spend more of their valuable time focussing on policy issues and community goals and major projects rather than on administrative details. Second, they get better and more comprehensive information and analysis from the administrator in a staff role to enable them to make more informed decisions. Third, the changing role of the board or council may encourage more people to run for elected office. Fourth, the administrator can provide continuity when new persons are elected as officials.

IV. Myths about Administrators

A. Hiring an administrator means giving up your right to elect your leader. False. The elected board and council members are the policy makers and the administrator reports to them. The administrator is responsible for carrying out the policies on a day-to-day basis. The administrator can be fired at any time by the board or council.

B. Hiring an administrator takes power away from the board or council. False. It strengthens the position of the governing body to make key decisions. It will, however, result in adjustments in who is responsible for what.

C. Administrators cost too much. Most administrators in Wisconsin receive between $40,000 and $75,000, well under comparable private sector positions. By efficient management, they are likely to pay for themselves within a short period of time. For very small communities, it is common for the administrator position to be combined with the clerk or clerk/treasurer position or other positions.

D. Administrators don't stay very long in one community. False. In Wisconsin, the average is about seven years and experiences of over fifteen years are not uncommon.

E. Fulltime mayors are the same as administrators. False. Mayors are elected for their political leadership, not their experience and education in administering the day-to-day business of the municipality. Some mayors may have administrative skills; other mayors may not.

V. Summary

Good local government requires two elements: (1) strong elected leadership and (2) effective and efficient day-to-day administration. The administrator position provides essential support for good leadership decisions and professional expertise for solid administration.

For further information:

Wisconsin City/County Management Association
WCMA Secretariat
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Oshkosh, WI 54901