The Alexandria City Council will appoint a citizens panel and hire an executive recruiting firm next week to begin its search for a new city manager, officials said.

The council is to vote Tuesday on a selection process that includes appointing an advisory board of local leaders and hiring the Reston firm Maximus Inc. to run the selection and screening process. Maximus is already helping the city with other hiring searches and ran the last search for a city manager in 2000.

Officials said they hope to have finalists selected by September and a job offer extended by Oct. 18.

The current Alexandria city manager, Philip G. Sunderland, announced June 9 that he would be leaving to pursue outside interests, perhaps teaching law. Sunderland -- who has worked for the city 18 years, the last four as city manager -- has said he will stay until a successor is named.

Mayor William D. Euille (D) said that over the next several weeks, council members will have one-on-one meetings with recruiters to describe their ideal candidate.

"If you asked me personally what I'd be looking for, I'd say someone with executive skills, strong leadership and an ability to delegate," Euille said. "Someone who can think outside the box. Oftentimes, we can't see through the fog simply because we're here -- we're mesmerized by events, activities, challenges. Hopefully, someone new will come in with fresh ideas and new concepts we haven't heard of. . . .

"We're a well-run city, and we want someone who can take this job and hit the ground running. I don't want to serve as a learning curve for someone."

Vice Mayor Redella S. "Del" Pepper (D) said that the council is looking for a candidate who has "good administrative or managerial skills."

"We also want to find somebody who has good communications skills who can be out in the community, someone with vision, who can advise the council on what that vision is," Pepper said. She concluded, "It's a very difficult job."

Sunderland, who makes $165,335 a year, oversees more than 2,500 employees with an annual budget of more than $500 million.

Euille said that the city is conducting a national search for a replacement but that inside candidates will be considered.

Observers have noted that one of Sunderland's deputies, Mark Jinks, has taken a more prominent role in recent weeks. Jinks, the assistant city manager for fiscal and financial affairs, helped moderate a recent public discussion on the city's plans for its future, for example.

Council member Ludwig P. Gaines (D) said: "It's still early. The full selection process has yet to begin." But Gaines said he wants a new city manager with "some background in urban affairs."

"We're a unique suburban-urban blend -- with our issues of affordable housing and transportation," Gaines said. "If you looked purely at suburban models, they don't apply. I think someone with experience managing a large city would be beneficial."

In letters to the editor and community forums, residents are already agitating that the city hire somebody who has experience in public administration. An oft-voiced criticism of Sunderland by neighborhood activists is that he was educated as a lawyer, not a city administrator. Sunderland served as the city's attorney for 14 years before taking the manager's job in 2000.

City Manager Philip G. Sunderland