By David Unmacht
I previously wrote a column titled “Five Qualities of a ‘Premier’ City,” in which I described my experiences gathering information on the best practices of Minnesota city governments (Nov-Dec 2017 issue of Minnesota Cities). Now I want to focus on the qualities of effective governing bodies.
Much has been written and attempted when it comes to building an effective governing body (city council, county board, etc.). There is no magic potion that makes it happen; it requires hard work, deliberate change when needed, and most importantly, a commitment from all participants. The role of staff in encouraging or inhibiting effective governance cannot be understated; it is truly a joint effort.
I started collecting information on governing body best practices when I worked in Scott County (1997-2008). During much of my tenure as county administrator, the County Board and staff had an excellent working relationship. During one of my performance reviews, Commissioner Jon Ulrich asked me, “What works in this county? Can you define why we are a strong team?” The answer was, “Yes,” and my staff and I put together a list of qualities to share with the Board.
Over time, I have evaluated and tested these principles for authenticity and validity. The list is not perfect, nor does it apply to every situation, but the ideas work and, indeed, they make a difference. The original list included more than a dozen examples of effective qualities of a governing body. I will review the most important ones here.
The fundamental role of a governing body is to identify clear goals, expectations, and accountabilities for your staff. Dysfunction is a symptom of confusion about duties and responsibilities. For example, councilmembers performing the roles of staff while staff is too deeply involved in policy or politics. Conflict is a certainty when expectations are unclear. Make sure there is consensus about expectations.
One of the fundamentals of our democracy and representative government is differing opinions. Debate and disagreement are healthy and can lead to better policy and informed decisions. However, when they become personal, the effectiveness of the governing body collapses. Effective leaders leave personal animosity and lingering disputes outside the front door of city hall.
Being an effective leader of a city council requires personal accountability and responsibility. Key components of responsibility include the importance of respectful public decorum during meetings; the ability to bring levity and humor to the workplace; and a genuine job of both holding staff accountable for mistakes, while also making sure they get credit for good work.
Effective governing bodies don’t look to blame. Instead, they learn from their mistakes and move forward. Reflect on how well you and your peers represent these values at city hall.
There is an underlying distinctiveness that elected officials have in relationships with residents that a city staff member does not and will not ever have. Yes, good staff work includes knowing and understanding what residents want, but that is not its primary role.
Elected officials must stay connected to the community and ensure that all voices are represented at city hall. Create positive and constructive ways to listen, engage, and communicate with all constituents. Effective governing bodies balance the interests of everyone and not just those who are most vocal.
Elected officials and city staff form a partnership through relationships and responsibilities. With that come principles, including those that appear to be obvious, but not always practiced: honesty, open communication, transparency, and having the ability to admit when you are wrong. Effective governing bodies are made up of human beings, not robots.
Why is it that some governing bodies have dysfunctional qualities? Experience shows it is likely a combination of personal agendas, long-held animosities, lack of clear goals and expectations, and other reasons unique to each city. Sadly, there are some that revel in chaos and conflict; certainly, our current political culture reflects this state. But it does not have to be this way.
I close this column as I closed the earlier one—by encouraging you to talk to your colleagues at city hall about how well you execute each of these qualities and, ultimately, ask the questions: Are we an effective governing body? If not, why not?
David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: email@example.com or (651) 281-1205.
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