USC logo

Second annual City Managers’ Summit focuses on employee satisfaction, climate change, leadership

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Matthew Kredell

The USC Price School of Public Policy partnered with the California Contract Cities Association (CCCA) to host the second annual City Managers’ Summit, which fostered important discussions around key policy issues such as climate change, economic development, leadership and the role of women in city management.

Professor Frank Zerunyan, director of executive education for the Price School’s USC Bedrosian Center on Governance, organized the event, held Nov. 15 at the USC Radisson Hotel to help practitioners more effectively implement policy. Zerunyan is a past president of the CCCA.

“I see city managers as kind of unsung heroes,” USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott said in his welcoming remarks. “I don’t feel you get the recognition and respect that you deserve for the fantastic job you do managing complex organizations.”

Many of the attendees have taken advantage of the extensive continuing education options for local leaders at USC Price, including CCCA Executive Director Marcel Rodarte, a 2013 graduate of the Executive Master of Leadership Program. Knott encouraged others to take a look at the three executive master’s degree programs; professional doctorate of policy, planning and development; and certificate programs that USC Price offers to help experienced professionals advance their knowledge and expertise.

“Your participation in our programs is a great benefit to us as well, because you bring a tremendous amount of experience and practical knowledge,” Knott said.

The summit included an update on the State of the Service survey, being conducted at the local level by USC Price Professor William Resh with help from Zerunyan; a talk on pioneering power policy from Allie Detrio of the French multinational electric utility company Engie; a panel on climate action plans led by USC Price Professor Antonio Bento; a discussion on the state of economic development from Larry Kosmont of Kosmont Companies; and a keynote from Lt. Col. Olivia D. Nelson, commander of USC Price’s Air Force ROTC detachment. At the summit’s conclusion, the USC City County Management Fellowship hosted a panel discussion on the evolving role of women in city management.

“The opportunity for academia and practical administration to sit in one room and talk about the future of local government and leadership is unique,” said Jorge Morales, president of the executive board for the CCCA. “I’m extremely impressed with the USC Price School of Public Policy and your interest in improving the profession and our quality of governance here in Southern California and beyond.”

Inequity in Public Employee Promotions?

Resh provided examples of takeaways he has gleaned from the public employee survey he and Zerunyan have led at the local level. Over the past two years, 15 cities in Los Angeles County have participated, including the two biggest: Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Associate Professor William Resh discussing the survey he and Zerunyan developed. (Photographs by Deirdre Flanagan )

Using an unnamed mid-size city with a population over 100,000 as an example, Resh noted that while two-thirds of the workforce felt promotions were based on merit, Hispanic employees perceived more unfairness within their performance evaluations compared with non-Hispanic employees.

“This is not great, but now the city manager has more than just anecdotal information that backs up the potential for inequity and bias in how promotions are decided across the city or across departments,” Resh said.

The survey also revealed that 31.5 percent of the city’s employees intended to leave their organization within the year. Although intent often doesn’t translate to action, having these types of indicators can help a city run more effectively and efficiently.

Although the grant for the research from the Haynes Foundation and Bedrosian Center concludes at the end of this year, Resh said that there was still time for city managers to get their cities to participate if they had not already.

Wildfires and Climate Change

Leading off the climate change panel, Bento talked about how global warming and severe impacts of climate change could affect the functioning of local economies in the near future, and identified the challenges this creates for local governance.

Jorge Morales, executive board president for the California Contract Cities Association (Photographs by Deirdre Flanagan )

Bento said that there is reason to believe the recent California wildfires are directly linked with climate change. Research shows that they could become 50 percent more frequent by the end of the century.

“I think there’s only one way to describe the last month,” Bento said. “Unless something changes, we might find ourselves in a situation that, by the end of the century, most of the state will be on fire.”

He said the greatest challenge facing cities regarding climate change is how to deal with transportation. Even though vehicles have become more efficient in gas mileage, Bento stated that emissions from cars and trucks have now started to increase again and that policies discouraging single-occupancy drivers are likely needed to reverse those trends.

Kome Ajise, director of planning for the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), explained that more than 260 cities and 35 counties in California have climate action plans, including 90 cities and four of six counties in the SCAG region.

Ajise identified Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Pasadena as best-practice cities. Los Angeles has a goal to electrify its entire 2,200 fleet of Metro buses by the 2028 Olympics. Bento pointed out that city managers will play a large part in the electrification of vehicles, in determining where to put charging stations.

Leadership and Listening

Nelson spoke about her lessons from the field on what makes a good leader — either in the military or in the public sector.

“When I talk to my students and try to boil down what leadership really means to me, I tell them their No. 1 job as a leader is to be an advocate and enabler,” Nelson said. “They have to be advocates across and down, and as enablers they have to be able to negotiate for the training and resources their team needs.”

Lt. Col. Olivia Nelson discussing leadership qualities (Photographs by Deirdre Flanagan )

She advised the city managers to see employees as human beings, to pick their battles, to avoid creating unnecessary power distance between them and their subordinates, and to encourage dissent in their organizations.

“You have to resist surrounding yourself with people who think like you do, always hiring people you identify with, because you need to have people around you who will check you,” Nelson said. “Dissent is probably the most valuable tool you have to make sure you’re going in the right direction.”

Bedrosian Center