Minnesota Cities Magazine

Local Governance Made Easy

By Andrew Kauffman

Congratulations! You’ve been elected to office. The celebratory beverages have ceased to flow, the confetti has been swept, and it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work. However, there is one lingering question: how are you going to do this? Campaigning is one thing, but day-to- day leadership is an entirely different endeavor. City Council Meeting Room pic You’ve made promises and now it’s time to deliver. You’re stumped and more than a little nervous.

Have no fear, dear elected official! Help is at hand. Sure, the title of this article is “Local Governance Made Easy,” but that was mostly just to get you to read it. The truth is there is nothing easy about it.

Ask seven questions
The single-elimination steps below will make decision making easier and provide a framework for your reasoning, but governing done right is a solemn responsibility, not an ego stroke, and every decision will have its detractors. This process, while not automatically giving you the right answers, will at least provide you with some of the right questions to ask and a solid foundation from which to defend your decision.

Question 1: What does the law say about it?
First and foremost, when you’re faced with a decision, this is the question you must ask. A surprising number of decisions that will appear before you are actually legal requirements from the state or federal governments, in which case the decision is simple: you must comply.

While this can seem repugnant to the concept of local authority, compliance doesn’t have to mean agreement. If the decision is impractical or burdensome, engage your legislators to change the requirement while doing what you must to keep your city out of legal hot water.

A second consideration on this point of legality is whether what you wish to do is actually against the law. This one should also be simple. If the decision in front of you is illegal, don’t do it! Having quality, trusted staff will help you avoid this particular pitfall . . . if you choose to listen to them.

Question 2: Is it consistent with the vision and mission?
Most cities have a vision or mission statement or both, as well as a comprehensive plan and/or an alternate urban area-wide review.

Between these documents, you have guidance for both philosophical and physical decisions for your city. While changes to these guiding documents can be made, be sure to gather all of the facts before doing so. Remember, past generations have expressed these values, and future generations are counting on you to deliver.

Question 3: What does the budget say about it?
In other words, do you have the money to pay for it? Keep in mind that even though you may be able to afford to build or buy something, you also have to maintain and upgrade it. Can the city afford that?

If it is something new to your city, is training or new personnel required in order to make it work properly? There may be yet other things to consider, such as impacts to insurance premiums and liability exposure that could affect even budgeted items.

Question 4: What do staff members say about it?
As alluded to in the previous point, do personnel already have the knowledge and training for this new venture? More importantly, do they have the capacity for it or will you need to hire more personnel?

Most cities are blessed with long-tenured staff, so it would be beneficial to ask them their honest thoughts on the venture in question. While the decision ultimately rests with you and your colleagues on the city council, it is the wise elected official who has enough humility to thoughtfully consider the input of those tasked with making your city a success.

A nuance to this point, particularly if the considered change is a new ordinance or code, is whether the proposed change is enforceable. Again, you must consider staffing levels, skills, and capacity.

Question 5: Whom does the decision benefit?
This question potentially has the most impact on you personally. If the only beneficiaries are elected officials and city staff, tread lightly!

Now more than ever, fairly or unfairly, government officials at all levels are being scrutinized as a privileged class of people who operate above the law. Unless you can clearly articulate how the proposed change benefits the city at large, don’t do it, particularly if there are other more pressing needs, real or perceived, as expressed by the citizens at large.

Question 6: Does it achieve the desired goal?
For this to be measured, it must be both measurable and in compliance with the prior decision points.

Granted, some initiatives—like a publicity campaign—can be difficult to measure, but there should be some indicators of success such as increased hits on a website. Also, be sure to consider what the real-world goals are of your effort. If it is increased residential development, for example, it would be wise to partner with local realtors and developers to gage any changes to market interest.

Question 7: Does it make sense?
This can be a subjective measure, which is why it is placed as the final consideration. The purpose of this is to lead you to self-examination and consideration of the big picture.

For instance, a municipal golf course may pass all of the above questions and yet still not make sense if your city is fully built up and bounded by water. OK, so that’s perhaps an obvious example, but the point remains that we can get so caught up in the details that we lose sight of relevance in the current set of parameters.

Perhaps the new city hall made all the sense in the world and passed all of the above points two years ago when a committee was formed, but now the economy has changed and it’s time to conserve your resources throughout a downturn. Although an investment has been made to get to this point, the prudent and courageous elected official would put this project on hold for better days as it no longer makes sense to proceed.

These points are only the tip of the iceberg for what can be a very complex process at times, but should provide enough general structure to—in the words of the Athenian Oath—“transmit this city not only not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.” Your willingness to serve is commendable; now make it memorable for all the right reasons.

Andrew Kauffman is the former mayor of Montrose.

Read the March-April 2014 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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