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Agenda Alexandria dives into what makes a good city manager

From left: David Speck, Phil Sunderland, Janet Barnett, Michael Lee Pope (photo via Agenda Alexandria/Facebook)

As the City of Alexandria searches for a new manager, several civic leaders recently met with Agenda Alexandria for a behind-the-scenes look at what the job entails and some of its local history.

The discussion, moderated by Alexandria Gazette reporter and local historian Michael Lee Pope, examined the qualifications of the job both as written by the city and from more hands-on experience.

“The city manager is the one who runs the city,” said former City Council member David Speck. “Think about the budget. When the City Council goes through all the work to adopt the budget, whose budget are they adopting? The city manager’s. The process starts with the city manager presenting the budget.”

Philip Sunderland, the city’s city manager for four years, outlined some of the big-picture details of the position. The city manager is appointed by the Mayor and City Council and acts as the “CEO of the executive branch” in that he is in charge of running the day-to-day operations of the city.

Sunderland, a former lawyer, said he took a very analytical approach when he started as city manager but said any prospective hire needs to be just as savvy with handling the political side of the job.

One of the main takeaways is that former City Manager Vola Lawson, who held the office from 1985-2000 and died in 2013, still casts a large shadow over the job and helped shape it into what it is today. When Speck asked the audience to name one city manager from the past, he was met with a chorus of “Vola Lawson” responses. Her name is still represented in various places around the city, like the Vola Lawson Animal Shelter and Vola’s Dockside Grill.

“[Lawson] defined a lot of that role,” Speck said.

Janet Barnett, executive director of Senior Services of Alexandria and former deputy director of the Alexandria Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities, said Lawson was very intelligent and very connected with the day-to-day operations of the city. Barnett said Lawson would receive daily bulletins from each city department to know about even seemingly minor issues before they could balloon into major problems.

“Vola owned this city,” Barnett said. “She cared deeply about it and she took great responsibility. This city was her baby.”

Barnett said Lawson’s legacy indicates that there’s something to be said for hiring within the city and getting someone who is already familiar with a lot of the inner workings and details of Alexandria.

Speck agreed, saying that there are job requirements beyond what’s on those listed on paper by the city. Speck also noted that, due to the academic limits, Lawson would not have been qualified for the position as it’s written today because she hadn’t had the necessary degrees.

“You can’t reduce the requirements and qualifications to open the field more broadly, but it’s always interested me that someone who has been such a dominant figure in Alexandria history and government is someone who would not meet the modern qualifications to be the city manager,” Speck said. “I think that’s one of the things that has, at least at some level, made Alexandria more special: it has recognized that there are people who otherwise might not otherwise fit the mold who have performed very well in a variety of different functions for the city.”

Speck said candidates who are already from the city have special advantages that may not come across on a resume.

“You can find lots of people who are very skilled in being a city manager; great background, great experience, but they’re not from here,” Speck said. “You can’t expect someone to learn how to be a good city manager on the job, but the difficulty is in learning about the subtleties and nuances. It’s a hard job to master when you’re coming in new to figure out what the next street over is when you’re going somewhere, and that’s tough. If you can find someone who already has familiarity with this area, you get one step ahead in the ability for that person to acclimate to this special community.”

The city is currently in the final stages of its city manager search, with a new manager expected to be announced before the end of the year.

Photo via Agenda Alexandria/Facebook

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