Minnesota Cities Magazine

St. Paul to City Hall: The Scariest Dotted Line I Ever Signed

UnmachtSPCHBy David Unmacht

I’ve signed thousands of official business documents throughout my career. From checks, contracts, and purchase orders, to joint powers agreements, regulatory appeals, resolutions, and tax forms, the list goes on and on.

In my first job as a young public administrator, long before computers and printers, every member of the Belle Plaine City Council and I signed each and every check issued by the city. We called it the “folio” and, although quite primitive by today’s standards, at the time, it was our way of making sure the taxpayer’s money was going to where it was intended. Seven signatures on each check was darn near audit proof.

Yet, in more than three decades of local government work, I cannot ever recall pausing as long as I did over a signature line when my assistant, Kellie Sundheim, asked me recently to review and sign the state of Minnesota lobbyist registration form.

“Formality,” she noted. “As executive director of a A hand holding a pen, signing a formmember-based advocacy group that focuses on lobbying, you don’t have a choice.” She was more polite than Radar O’Reilly was to Col. Henry Blake (“Sign here, sir.” “OK, Radar.”), but she meant business. I read the form over closely; it was not long or detailed. It was the wording that bothered me.

Over the years, I have testified before the Minnesota House and Senate, met with administration officials, developed legislative policies and platforms, and had countless conversations with legislators, but always as a professional administrator. Not as a lobbyist. A citizen of interest, a local government manager, a subject matter expert, yes; but not a lobbyist.

Two premier lobbyists from the League of Minnesota Cities, Anne Finn and Gary Carlson, asked attendees during our fall 2015 Regional Meetings if “used car salesmen have a better reputation” than members of their profession. Many said “yes.” That is what was on my mind with the document before me, and pen in hand. By simply signing the mandated form, my reputation changes, or so I believed.

After realizing my fate, I put my “David J. Unmacht” on the form. My thoughts immediately shifted. I reflected on what State Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle repeatedly told those same Regional Meeting attendees: “Now is the time to make your opinions known. We need all the voices we can get this session if we want to pass a comprehensive long-term transportation bill.”

Text: If a lobbyist is someone who speaks to and represents the interests of our cities on topics of great importance ... then count me in. Lt. Gov. Tina Smith at the January Regional Council of Mayors Meeting echoed the same sentiments, challenging and encouraging the mayors and city officials to weigh in this session with consistent and strong voices. Don’t be bashful, they both said; don’t let others crowd out your voices. What the lieutenant governor and transportation commissioner were imploring is not unique to the 2016 session. Haven’t we heard the same message countless times before? But for me—this time—it felt more personal and timely; more important and essential; and more relevant and necessary.

Suddenly, being the staff lead of the largest city association in our state puts me in a position to speak on behalf of our cities in a more prominent leadership role. What am I thinking? If I need to sign a form to formalize it, so be it.

For more than 100 years, the League has played an important role as an advocate for our cities’ interests. If a lobbyist is someone who speaks to and represents the interests of our cities on topics of great importance, such as transportation, sewer and water, city street and broadband infrastructure funding, local government aid, groundwater policy, absentee balloting, and workforce housing, then count me in.

I sincerely do prefer the Executive Director title to that of Lobbyist, especially in any official capacity, since our respected and reputable intergovernmental relations staff are the true lobbyists and workhorses at the Capitol day in and day out. Their experience, reputation, and work on behalf of cities is second to none. With that said, I’m looking forward to representing you at the Capitol. You will be able to find me; I will be working alongside all the other … lobbyists.

David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: dunmacht@lmc.org or (651) 281-1205.

Read the March-April 2016 issue of Minnesota Cities Magazine

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