Friday, February 5, 2016

Welcome to Local Government! 5 Ways to Be a Successful Elected Official

By Dave Bartholomay

[Dave Bartholomay has been mayor of Circle Pines for 10 years, and served a four-year term as a council member prior to that. Do you have a city story to tell? Submit your idea to communications@lmc.org.]

Each January brings a new crop of mayors and city council members into government service. I myself was recently sworn in again as mayor of Circle Pines and have had a chance to reflect on my past 14 years as an elected official. Here are five things that my experience has taught me about how to be successful as an elected official:

1.)    First, appreciate that being an elected official is a tremendous opportunity to serve your friends and neighbors while always working to improve your community. Live by the Rotary Club slogan: “Service before Self.”  This is less about your grand ideas and big promises, and more about finding ways to work well with others to improve your community, in often small and steady ways. Remember that compromise is not a four-letter word.

2.)    Here's a big surprise: being an elected official is really not all about you and it is certainly not about you being the loudest or being the biggest bully. Rather, it is about focusing on how you can best serve everyone in your community, not just those who supported your candidacy. Local government has a lot of moving pieces and you will find yourself always learning in this job. Good ideas can come from all sorts of places, including your 'opponents'.

3.)    Always work hard to be transparent and open, honest, and authentic.  The public wants to understand what is happening in their community, as well as what you are doing with their money and with the power and responsibility that they bestowed on you.

4.)    Be optimistic and ask good questions to bring issues out into the light of day. Residents watch council meetings hoping to learn from your discussions; don't embarrass your community through outrageous words and behavior. Focus on being civil in your discussions and be measured in your public comments. Be cautious about what you say and how you say it, leaving the door open for more dialogue in the future.

5.)    Work with and trust the city staff. I strongly believe all communication from an elected official to city staff should go through the city administrator, who is usually the only person directly hired and supervised by the city council. Don’t forget that elected officials are supposed to stay up at the ‘policy’ level and not micromanage at the ‘operations’ level.

Being an elected or appointed official is really quite an honor. Your job is to get out and about, gathering ideas and being a positive force as you try to improve your community. Treat your position with dignity and respect, and I've found that you will be appreciated for your hard work (even by those who didn't vote for you!).

A version of this post was originally printed in the Quad Community Press on Dec. 1, 2015.

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