This piece was written, essentially, by a good friend in his quest to help a few others adapt to their new positions as *elected officials*. After reading it I realized that this piece was so well written that it needed to be seen by everyone, whether newly elected or a long serving elected official; they ALL need to remember who put them in office, what they are supposed to do while there and most of all, remember exactly who it is that works for whom.
My friend was gracious enough to let me use his work and modify it a bit to fit ALL elected officials, not just the *local guys* Thank you my friend.
Are You New to Government Service?
GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS! A Practical Orientation
THE BAD NEWS
Politics Are Reactionary
Virtually every action by Government gores somebody’s ox. It is axiomatic that you cannot please all of the people all of the time.
So, when folks do show up at Council meetings, Town Hall functions and the like in any number (other than for presentations to their organization/school/family, etc), it is usually with torches and pitch forks. They are often angry, they are almost always emotional. Reason and logic will be totally absent.
Much of the commentary you receive will be uninformed, despite your best intentions and strongest efforts. Communication with citizens has been an issue since long before I was involved. Hardly a candidate has run for office without a campaign promise to improve communications with the public. Yet despite the multiple vehicles we now have for communication with the public, and routine use of virtually all of those vehicles, there has been virtually no improvement. The truth of the matter is that folks simply don’t pay attention unless and until it affects them personally.
Once someone is offended by something an elected official is doing, you will discover that the communications problem is mostly one way. The offended will spread the word quickly to similarly situated friends and neighbors. There will be a mobilization of the pissed off, but only of the pissed off – and typically by now, the misinformed pissed off. The ground swell you will encounter head-on in calls, emails, texts, Tweets and any other media available will be formidable.
Facts will be ignored, sometimes even misrepresented, the process will be abused. For the pissed off, there is no such thing as the common good. The folks that will try to pull the wool over your eyes, right to your face, will sometimes surprise you – although, more often than not, it’s the usual “frequent fliers.” You’ll get to know who they are and what they have to say soon enough, even before they say it.
You will (eventually) be shocked at the amount of misinformation out there and how it’s often intentionally wielded to promote one agenda or another. Or, if you are a long time student of human nature, you may perhaps not be all that surprised.
Neighborhood politics run heavily through some of the issues. You will sometimes hear “the other side of the story” off the record from neighbors who will readily admit that they are too intimidated to actually speak (or write) publically about an issue in opposition to their more vocal and militant neighbors.
Sounds pretty negative doesn’t it? Well, that’s because it is.
The truth of the matter is that because governmental politics are reactionary, much of your official contact with the public will be negative. This simply comes with the job. There have been a number of instances of an elected official resigning because of the constant negativism. Government service as an elected official is certainly not a position for everyone.
The folks that appear before their various government representatives will, as often as not, represent the minority. The ones with no issues typically don’t show up. It is a rare occasion when someone shows up to praise you, but from time to time they will. You simply need to know that notwithstanding all of the negative input, there is a silent majority out there that doesn’t feel that way. When things are going well in the city, county, state or nation, when there are no big controversies and folks are feeling good about their government, attendance at most public meetings will be minimal. The near silence in chambers will be deafening. That is disappointing at one level, and a sign of success at another.
Developers and Others Not Much Better
These are your professional “constituents.” They are there to sell you something, so be skeptical. They too have an agenda, but in this case it’s their job. They have a responsibility to their shareholders/owners to make things happen, to “close the deal.”
They will also mislead, but not the same extent or as brazenly as the pissed off, at least not usually. For them, it’s all part of the process. You just need to know that and understand the game. You need to also understand that they know the game far better than you and are far better at it than you. After all, this is part of their day job, they are pros.
Developers and contractors are persuasive. They’ll have you believing that everything they do is in the best interests of the city, county, state or nation. You must remember that you don’t represent the developers. You must put the interests of your constituents ahead of that of the development interests. At the end of the day, when the project is done, the developers will be gone, counting their money somewhere else, but the rest of us will still be here, living with their product. Only you can ensure that it’s a deal we want to live with.
There’s another group that is on one hand your best resource, but on the other needs to be checked from time to time – the staff that works for your particular segment of the government. They are there to offer advice and support. Use them. They are the starting point for your research. They can give you the history, the rules, other resources to check, etc.
However, on some issues you have to be fully aware, they too have an agenda and in the past may have been less than forthcoming with unbiased information. You’ll usually know which issues those are beforehand. The solution is simply to do your homework so you will recognize it when something is glossed over or you are getting less than complete information.
So, What to Do About It?
Your decisions must be objective, based on facts. Never lose sight of the fact that you represent your entire constituency and that your decisions must be in the interest of all – for the greater good. They depend on you to do your job – not default to the loudest voices. Also remember that you are spending other people’s money and there has to be a good reason to spend one person’s money for the benefit of another.
Because you have a whole room/hall/chamber full of unhappy citizens, all wearing the same color shirt and more or less saying the same thing does not make them right. You need to be wary, particularly when they are that organized. If they truly carried the sword and shield of truth and justice, the dramatics, rhetoric and hyperbole would be unnecessary.
It should be a general rule of thumb that when the argument before you is based almost entirely on hyperbole and/or emotion, you should check and make sure you still have your wallet – take a step back and not do a thing until you are fully satisfied that you have all of the facts and understand all of the issues.
Do your research. It takes time and effort, but that’s your job. There was a time in the distant past when a caretaker government could sleep-walk the job, and that time will come again, but this is not that time. If you don’t understand what’s going on and what the staff is talking about, how can you make an informed decision?
Figure out your priorities and let them guide you. Consistency is important. For example, on the back of my notebook, I’ve listed mine as a reminder:
1. Public Safety
3. Government Staff
4. Public Amenities
Each with sub-points.
Those are followed by bullet points related to “smart growth:”
• Quality of Place – a livable community/nation
• Patience – wait until it becomes a seller’s market if need be
• “Those who speak most of progress measure it by quantity and not by quality.” G. Santayana
• Importance of any particular project
• Regularly Update the Comprehensive Plan
Disagree without being disagreeable. If you can’t stand up for what’s right, you’re doing a disservice to those you represent. As someone in the minority more than most, I can tell you that in addition to doing your homework, having a core set of values and sticking up for them will, in the long run, net you respect from other elected officials and staff.
Some of the folks I’ve butted heads with over the years have become my very good friends. You can represent the citizens well, get along with the rest of your Fellows and still be your own person. But once the vote it taken, it’s time to move on; although, at times, that can be frustrating.
There are those in office who will not be informed. There are some in office (or have been in office) that are essentially one-trick ponies. They have an agenda, often a single issue agenda, and little interest in things outside that agenda. There are some in office who eventually base their decisions on what they believe will gain them the most influence or votes – they pander to whoever is there that night and/or other interest groups. Know who they are and when this is occurring – do not allow yourself to be misled by others.
I’ve heard it said that it takes a full term to even begin to understand all of the moving parts. It’s my observation that this is mostly true. Even with years of working on associated groups and projects there was a lot new, a lot for me to learn. But, if you’re going to be effective, you have to go after that knowledge. You can’t wait for it to come to you.
GET A MENTOR
One of the most important factors of my growth in office was the stewardship I received from fellow elected official that had served for a long time. He and I were not often philosophically aligned in governmental affairs, but that makes no difference. In fact, it probably helped because we challenged each other and were both better prepared as a result.
THE GOOD NEWS
Notwithstanding the above, at the end of the day, serving in an elected office can be extremely rewarding. It is also interesting and educational. I’ve enjoyed every bit of it (except for campaigning). Done right, it is hard work and incredibly time consuming, but as with most things, the reward is proportional to the effort you put into it.
In closing; I fully believe that this needs to be seen, read and digested by everyone that is in government service as an elected official and by those that put them there.
And I do mean everyone in all levels of elected office, from ALL Parties.
I hope that ALL of my friends, family and readers, regardless of their political affiliation, will share this with their friends and elected officials. You can bet that all of MY elected officials have it in their email inboxes.
This nation CAN be saved but it will take American Patriots holding the feet of our elected officials to the fire, and it will take those elected officials placing this nation and the needs of the people ahead of themselves.
Elections DO have consequences. Deo vindice.