50 Survival Tips for Newly Elected Municipal Officials

June 5, 2019

C ongratulations! The voters have spoken and you’re the candidate they’ve elected to meet the challenges facing the city and its citizens. You may find your new position to be worlds apart from what you had imagined. Maybe you hadn’t considered the amount of time your “part-time” position would take, or you hadn’t anticipated that your residents would expect you to solve all their problems, which may include personal issues. Whatever your feelings are, you can rest assured that in time, you will become more knowledgeable regarding the fundamentals of your local government.

Your ability to assist in the operations of your local government will only improve over time. GMA, along with other organizations, is available in helping you become a more effective leader. Many newly elected municipal officials are often apprehensive about their recently acquired responsibilities as public servants. As a practical tool, the following 50 Survival Tips are meant to assist you in understanding your role:

1 Know what you are getting into. Becoming an effective municipal elected official will require much time and effort on your part. Most elected officials, regardless of their form of government, will find they are a public servant full time. Expect to spend a significant portion of your time attending to your duties – attending city council meetings and other meetings, reviewing reports and other materials, meeting with constituents, and attending various functions in your official capacity as mayor or council member.

As an elected official, you can expect to be contacted at all hours by citizens – making complaints, seeking assistance, and seeking personal favors. Additionally, as an elected official, you can plan to give up certain aspects of your privacy. The elected official truly lives in a fishbowl. Accordingly, your actions, however uneventful they may seem, may be subjected to close public scrutiny. Remember that anything you say or do may appear in the newspaper, the evening news, or on the Internet.

2 Understand your role as a municipal elected official. It is very important that all municipal officials, both elected and appointed, understand their roles in the city’s organization. You should clearly understand the roles, lines of authority, and limitations of the following city officials:
  • The mayor
  • The city council
  • The city manager or administrator, if any
  • The city clerk
  • The city attorney
  • The city’s department heads.

3 Do your homework. Follow the Scouting motto “Be prepared.” Read your city’s charter and code of ordinances, along with any reports that your city manager, city clerk, and/or department heads may provide. In other words, be prepared and informed before making statements, asking questions, or voting on an issue.

If your city manager or city clerk prepares an agenda packet or staff report for your review prior to each council meeting, be sure to read it carefully. Such reports generally contain background information on items that are scheduled for consideration at the next council meeting. Becoming familiar with this information prior to the council meeting should assist you in making more informed decisions at the meeting. If your city manager or city clerk does not prepare an agenda packet or staff report prior to each council meeting, you might want to ask that one be developed.

4 Familiarize yourself with your city’s operations. Learn as much as possible about your city’s operations. For example, find out why the city’s sanitation charges are so high, why the city’s recycling participation rates are so low, and/or how much it costs to repair a sidewalk or a pothole. What about wastewater? Do you know what happens to wastewater when someone flushes a toilet in your city? Is your city’s wastewater treatment plant in compliance with applicable regulations?

An examination of the city’s budget will identify the city’s major sources of expenditures and revenues. The city manager, as well as the city’s department heads, can provide valuable information concerning the city’s operations.

Finally, learn as much as you can about the important issues that presently affect your community and surrounding areas. Are there problems with crime, traffic, or water supply?

5 Use your perspective. Once you have become acquainted with your new responsibilities, it is imperative that you utilize your new perspective to better communicate issues with your constituency. Being a newly elected official, you may have a better understanding of the citizen’s needs and concerns and may be better able to express them to your more “seasoned” colleagues.

6 Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The adage that you learned in first grade, “the only dumb question is the one not asked,” is true. Remember that some elected officials may have more experience and might not ask as many questions. Also, other elected officials may have the same questions as you but may not be willing to ask them. Don’t let the fear of asking a “dumb” question deter you in your efforts to become a more informed and a more effective elective official.
7 Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Since legislative decisions require the approval of a majority of the city council, it may be difficult to sell your plan to the numbers of council members needed for passage. For example, making a promise during the campaign that you will reduce the city’s water rates or fire the police chief might help you win the election. However, without the support and affirmative vote of a majority on the city council, such promises may never come to fruition.

8 Don’t try to please everyone. It is impossible to please everyone. Accept this fact and move on to more important issues.

9 Learn Your Alphabet. Public hearings on such controversial issues as land use or zoning changes will sometimes fill the council chambers with fearful or angry residents who are opposed to the issue under consideration. Some of these residents may be better characterized by an alphabet soup of acronyms, including the following:
  • NIMBYs – Not in My Back Yard
  • CAVEs – Citizens Against Virtually Everything
  • BANANAs – Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere, Near Anything
Please note that the NIMBYs, CAVEs, and BANANAs can offer valid concerns, and they can also conduct research and provide valuable information that can assist elected officials with their decision-making processes. With a little effort, you should be able to recognize the difference between legitimate concerns and irrational fears. Remember that your job as an elected official is to represent the entire community, not just a particular block or subdivision.

10 Try to be as consistent as possible in making decisions. Consistency is the best policy when making decisions. Be wary of setting precedents and rely strictly on policy.

11 Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Even if you “do your homework” and become familiar with your city’s operations, as recommended above, it is impossible to know everything about a city’s operations, employees, and finances. If a constituent (or anyone else, for that matter) asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, have the courage to say so – but offer to find out the answer.
12 Pace yourself. It is impossible for you to learn the workings of your government overnight. You may find it difficult to juggle the multiple tasks you have recently inherited, but it is crucial that you allot time in your schedule for studying the issues.

13 Ask for opinions and listen. Listen to everyone, including your adversaries and those having opinions that differ from yours. Be open to new ideas and suggestions.

14 Draw the line. Never let differences of political opinions cross over into personal attacks. Respect the seats that your colleagues occupy, and remember that, like yourself, they were elected by the citizens.

15 Adhere to your city’s form of government. Don’t bypass the system. Know your city’s charter. It is the city’s fundamental law, much like the national or state constitution.

In Georgia, most municipalities have one of the three forms of government: strong mayor-council form, the weak mayor-council form, or the council-manager form. Reading and understanding your city’s charter will help you in determining your role as an elected official. If your city’s charter and code of ordinances do not provide an administrative role for you in the city’s operations, don’t meddle in the day-to-day administration of the city.

If your city has a city manager, let that individual serve as a liaison between the city’s staff (department heads and others) and the mayor and council. Among the manager’s many responsibilities is supervising the city’s department heads. This is impossible if the city’s department heads and other staff are answering to several bosses (i.e., the mayor and council). Therefore, all complaints from the mayor and council should come through the city manager.

If your role is strictly a legislative one, concentrate on setting policy to the best of your ability, and let your appointed administrative staff perform the jobs that the city is paying them to do – and then hold them accountable.

16 Insist that others adhere to your city’s form of government. Don’t let others – elected officials, city employees, citizens, etc. - bypass the system. Insist that they adhere to your city’s established procedures (regarding complaints, personnel issues, etc.). Additionally, insist that vendors, applicants for employment, etc., adhere to the city’s established procedures.
17 Recognize the value of teamwork and consensus building. City councils whose members work together as a team, respect everyone’s right to have a different opinion, and “agree to disagree,” are probably more effective and can probably accomplish much more than councils whose members spend the majority of their time engaged in grandstanding, fighting, and backstabbing. Remember, you are only but one vote; everything depends on teamwork.

An annual planning retreat provides an excellent opportunity for the mayor and council to get to know each other better and, hopefully, build an effective working team. At this time, you can get to know what types of personalities you are surrounded by, extroverts or introverts. This may help explain the different approaches that your colleagues may take when discussing and reviewing an issue. If your city does not conduct a retreat, you may want to suggest doing so. The use of an experienced facilitator during the retreat is strongly recommended.

18 Remember that the council should speak as one voice. The city council possesses its power as a group. Once a vote is taken, the council has spoken. Once a decision has been made by the city council, try to be supportive of it, even if you personally don’t like the decision.

19 Praise in public, criticize in private. In order to form great working relationships with the mayor, council, and staff, it is of the utmost importance that you respect them both in public and in private. Don’t use the media or public meetings to disrespect your colleagues or staff. People are more likely to receive criticism better in private than in front of an audience.

20 Gratitude. Always remember to show your appreciation to your staff for their hard work and dedication to the well-being of the city.

21 Never engage in gossip. Do not allow constituents to approach you with rumors concerning the mayor or council. As the Jewish Proverb states, “What you don't see with your eyes, don't witness with your mouth.”

22 Set goals. Early in life, we learned the importance of setting goals. We also learned the importance of setting realistic goals. Don’t expect to conquer the world over night. Even after setting realistic goals, you might not achieve anything you set out to accomplish your first year. Consensus-building plays a strong role in determining whether you will be able to achieve your political aspirations.
23 Try not to reinvent the wheel. There are actually few new ideas. Your city’s most recent innovation has probably already been implemented in other cities. Before beating your head against a wall trying to be creative or innovative, find out what other cities are doing. In addition to learning about other cities’ success stories, the “lessons learned” by cities who have experienced problems with various programs or services will be invaluable. Why repeat someone else’s mistake, when you can repeat their accomplishments?

24 Use the resources that are available to you. Don’t panic - help is available! There are numerous organizations and agencies available to assist local governments. Plan to make the best use of these resources.

The Georgia Municipal Association is available to serve you. GMA’s website and publications contain a variety of information on training, legislation, policy issues, and GMA’s programs and services. GMA’s staff is ready and willing to assist your city. Additional resources include the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government (CVIOG) and Fanning Institute, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA), and Georgia’s regional commissions (RCs). Each of these agencies is available to assist cities and can provide a variety of information and services.

25 Recognize the importance of training. Take advantage of the excellent training programs available to Georgia’s municipal elected officials through the Harold F. Holtz Municipal Training Institute. These programs provide opportunities for you to network with your peers, exchange ideas, and share common concerns. Additionally, recognize the importance of training the city’s workforce. While state law requires that certain city employees (police officers, fire fighters, water and wastewater treatment operators, etc.) receive training annually, most of the available training opportunities for municipal employees are voluntary.

Some elected officials are reluctant for their cities to spend significant resources on training because they fear that their city might become a “training ground” for employees who may leave the city for better paying jobs elsewhere. Unfortunately, this problem does exist in many communities. However, the benefits of having a trained, professional workforce cannot be overstated. Consider this excellent training motto: "The only thing worse than training your people and losing them is not training them and keeping them" (Associated General Contractors).
26 Practice what you have learned. Once the class is over, take the information you have gained and apply that knowledge to your everyday life. By using the information, you will be able to perform at a higher level, therefore showing others the importance of municipal training.

27 Learn from other experienced officials. Identify an experienced and wise city official (not necessarily from your own city) who would be willing to serve as a mentor. It is strongly encouraged that you form relationships with municipal officials throughout the state, especially those with similar populations and who are facing some of the same issues that your city faces. It is also important that city officials look to other cities that have accomplished the goals that they are now trying to attain. Receiving quality advice from city officials, regardless of your time in office, could possibly prevent you and your colleagues from making needless errors.

28 Review and understand the Georgia Open Meetings Law. If you never understand any other laws, make sure that you are familiar with this one.

Knowingly and willfully participating in a meeting that violates the Open Meetings Act is punishable as a misdemeanor and can result in a fine of up to $500. Also, keep in mind that the Georgia Attorney General has the power to bring a civil or criminal action to enforce compliance with the Open Meetings Act. Additionally, any person, firm, corporation or other entity can sue to require you to comply with the Open Meetings Act.

Finally, violations of the Open Meetings Act are grounds for filing a recall petition against an elected official. For additional information, consult the GMA publication Government in the Sunshine

29 Avoid conflicts of interest. As an elected official, you should recognize when you have a legitimate conflict of interest, so that you will be sure to disqualify yourself and not vote on the particular issue at hand. Under O.C.G.A. §36-30-6, it is illegal for a member of a city council to vote on any question brought before the council in which he or she is personally interested.

You should also be familiar with the Conflict of Interest in Zoning Actions Act (O.C.G.A. §36-67A- 1 et seq.). Under this Act, disclosures of financial interests in property subject to a zoning action are required, and failure to disclose may constitute a crime. Please note, however, that a council member should only abstain from voting on an issue if he or she has a legitimate conflict of interest, not to avoid voting on a controversial issue.
30 Stay focused. Your constituents expect you to perform the job they elected you to do. Do not lose sight of your commitment to your community. You will be bombarded with requests, from family, friends, associates, and business leaders, which may or may not be ethical. However, remember the voters trusted you to represent their well-being, and you will be the only one who has to answer to your electorate.

31 Recognize the importance of intergovernmental relations. Interaction with other governmental officials at the local, state, and national levels can be extremely important to your city. At the local level, it is important that your city communicate with other city and county officials. In fact, the Georgia Service Delivery Law for Local Governments requires cities and counties to work together to develop a service delivery strategy for the entire county.

Effective communication with state legislators is also important, as the General Assembly annually passes numerous pieces of legislation that impact local governments. While the Georgia Municipal Association has a legislative staff that can give state lawmakers the facts about how an issue will affect cities, it is from you, a fellow elected official (and their constituent), that legislators learn how proposed legislation might affect the citizens “back home.”

How can city officials lobby effectively with their state legislators? While personal interaction is usually the best approach, it is often difficult to meet with your legislator during the legislative session. However, telephone calls, emails, and faxes are effective methods of communicating with your legislators. Cities are also encouraged to organize Hometown Connections to build relationships with legislators.

32 Communicate! Remember, communication is the key to any healthy relationship. Don’t be afraid to express your concerns or feelings regarding an issue. However, when speaking to others, always remember to be polite. Like the saying goes, “You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.”

33 Don’t forget your constituents. Once upon a time you were a constituent. It is important that you remember the level of respect you demanded as a voter. Your constituency expects you to understand their problems and issues and to be genuinely concerned about their well-being. Never forget who put you in office, because they will not forget you on Election Day.

34 Live up to your official responsibilities. Since being elected to office, you probably have gained a better appreciation for those that serve. Attending every event you are invited to may be impossible. It is, however, strongly suggested that you attend every council meeting scheduled during your tenure.

35 Seek feedback from constituents. Remember to seek out answers from your constituents by making personal calls, attending backyard barbecues, community picnics, and/or making house calls. They expect you to vote to protect their needs and their community for generations to come.

36 Contact information. Let your constituents know the best means of contacting you (e-mail, social media, snail mail, fax, or phone). Always remember that you were elected to represent the public rather than to hide from them.

37 Always respond to the voter. As an elected official, it is your responsibility to respond to any phone calls, letters, emails, or faxes you may receive from your constituents. It may be time- consuming, but in the end, the voters will applaud you for your effort and your willingness to attend to their needs and concerns.

38 Never let them see you sweat. At some point during your term, you may find yourself being attacked by the mayor, councilmembers, voters or reporters. But remember, it is always better to take the high road. As a public official, you have become a role model for your entire community. You should always remain level-headed. People are watching, and that includes the future leaders of your community.

39 When in doubt, go for modesty. According to Webster’s Dictionary, modesty means “freedom from conceit or vanity.” The people elected you as mayor or to the city council because they felt a connection to you and your vision for the city. If they perceive that you have changed and your behavior is no longer in line with your performance as a candidate, they may lose faith in you. You may possibly become just another “politician” in their eyes and not the public servant they elected. When serving the people, always remain a humble servant.

40 Be specific. Once you have learned the issues affecting your city, it is your responsibility to articulate the needs of the city to your state legislators. It is important that you help them to understand where your city stands on each individual issue so that they may vote or act accordingly.
41 It’s not about getting even! Remember that speeding ticket you received prior to taking office? Well, this is not the time to get even. Do not use your new role to make political or personal attacks on anyone you feel wronged you before or after taking office.

42 Remember why you ran for office and whom you serve. Remember to not get caught up in all the hype. As an elected official, your sole responsibility is to serve the people to the best of your ability. You obviously ran for office because you believed that you had something good to offer to the people. Now that you’re in office, the people expect you to work solely for the betterment of their community.

43 Act in an ethical manner. Many elected officials are confronted with ethical dilemmas daily. City officials are encouraged to take the Ethics course offered by the Harold E. Holtz Municipal Training Institute. This course will provide officials with a better understanding on what approach to take when facing these occasionally unavoidable situations.

44 Do the right thing. Always strive to do the right thing, regardless of popularity. Remember that which is right is not always popular, and that which is popular is not always right.

45 Consult with and follow the advice of the city attorney. We cannot over-emphasize the importance of talking to your city attorney before addressing the complex issues impacting your city.

46 Work with your media outlets. Inform the newspaper and other media of every possible thing you are doing and get their feedback and input. Invite them to your work sessions and include them in the decision-making. If they are a part of it, they can't complain.

47 Choose only a couple of things to work on at a time. Do them well but have only a few major initiatives at a time.

48 Be a leader, not just a politician. Remember the adage – “a politician looks to the next election, a leader looks to the next generation.”

49 Recognize that controversy is inevitable at times. How you choose to deal with controversy will be an important measure of your effectiveness as an elected official. Remember to focus on the real issues, and do not make promises that you cannot keep.

50 Try to have fun! Public service is hard work, but there are no rules against having a good time. Make a concerted effort to enjoy your term in office. Otherwise, it may be the longest period of your life. Try to maintain your sense of humor, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Additionally, take pride in the fact that you will have a hand and a voice in the future development of your community. There is no greater reward in public service than knowing that you helped to make a difference in your community!

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