The Facts of Life for Local Government Executives – by Gary Kellar

The Facts of Life

One of the principal facts of life for local government executives, especially at the start of the second decade of the 21st century is that there is no longer a concept of permanent employment – if there ever was. Some might say that until the last decade of the previous century there was still a semblance of separation of local government administration as an impartial discipline, from the elected council as a policy-based forum. Today however the elected forum is much closer to the body politic we see at state and federal level where the lines between politics and administration are considerably blurred. The number of CEOs leaving or being “separated” from their jobs following quadrennial elections reflects that change.

For local government CEOs, the practical horizon of their employment term is not that stated in their employment contract but the term of the electoral cycle. One arguable fact of life is that by exercising traditional loyalty and support to one’s incumbent Mayor and Council, regardless of how well balanced, professional and impartial that advice might be, there is a possibility that a newly elected Mayor or Council will see it as partisan support for a political opponent and seek to remove the CEO as not sufficiently aligned to the new direction.

A converse is that adherence to a frank and fearless approach in giving advice can also raise the ire of both a returned Mayor/Council or a newly elected one, resulting in another cause to initiate change of administrative leadership. In the latter case I previously canvassed the notion of frank and fearless advice before the last election. SEE Here .

Let me stress that incompetence or poor performance are quite different matters and should be dealt with decisively, regardless of the electoral cycle. (see an earlier article on performance management

The Facts of Life in Practice

The principal fact of life is that the Council and its CEO must work closely together with absolute trust or the very process of local government is in jeopardy. Some important elements need to be in place if the relationship is to succeed:

  • Real and demonstrated mutual respect that is evident to the organisation and the community;
  • Demonstrated commmitment to the Values and Code of Conduct adopted for the organsation – by both councillors and officers;
  • Documented and well understood terms of engagement between elected members and officers, that are observed in practice;
  • A structured and meaningful performance review system based on honest and forthright discussion; and
  • Full and open disclosure of any matters likely to cause problems with the relationship.


Notwithstanding the legal technicalities of employment contracts,  (and clearly there are legally enforceable rights exercisable by both parties) if the relationship is not going to work there is little point in trying to force its continuance. Consequently, at the end or the beginning of each election term a local government CEO must face up to the facts of life for their profession and whilst hoping for the best, prepare for the worst. An experienced and self-aware CEO will have a firm appreciation of prevailing circumstances in order to judge the likelihood of one outcome against the other. However, local government elections are like Forest Gump’s box of chocolates – you never know what you are going to get. Of course, the fervent hope is always that a newly elected Mayor/ Council find common ground with the CEO from the start and a good working relationship prospers.

In the unfortunate  event that different circumstances prevail, the first approach should always be to seek reconcilation and confirmation of a willingness to respect each party’s role and to work collaboratively for the benefit of the community. However when the writing is on the wall it is important to prepare in a way that provides the best opportunity for a dignified separation, based on an effective career continuity or transition plan.

Through our many network contacts. Reinforcements can assist Mayors and CEOs mend or end their relationship and in making decisions about the next steps in either case.


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