2009 is almost over and so is my first year in office. I’ve long thought that education is the process of refining what I don’t know. After a year, I’ve learned a great deal about how little I know about city government.
I started 2009 with an experienced spectator’s knowledge of how city government operates and some experience with the land use planning side of things from my days on the Planning Commission (and a thick – even armored – skin from that time, too). I had a good textbook understanding of the organizational flow chart showing the roles and responsibilities of staff, fellow Council members, and boards/commissions.
At the end of 2009, I can report that a formal knowledge of city government is not very helpful and understanding the issues, while useful, isn’t nearly enough to get the job done. Rather, I’m just beginning to develop a more strategic approach to that organizational chart along with a plan for shuttle diplomacy to advance issues.
A few targeted comments:
Roles & responsibilities: City staff have not taken over the city nor are they pushing a particular agenda. On one hand, the staff face the challenge of trying to operate where there are 7 elected officials who rarely speak clear, declarative sentences announcing city policy in sufficient detail to address all the issues the staff must manage during the course of the work week. Unless or until the Council can speak with a unified and clear voice, the staff must use their discretion. Don’t blame the staff; talk to the Council.
On the other hand, the Council relies heavily on the staff to provide information to make our decisions. This is where staff power and influence is most obvious. If the Council only receives a few pixels of the big picture, we are not likely to understand the problem or make good choices for the long term health of the community. I struggle much more with this side of the picture, especially with issues like the land development code (where I know that I’m not getting all the relevant information) and the Safety Center (where I strongly suspect I don’t know what I need to know). Council members aren’t experts; we don’t always know when we need additional information and when we can accept the staff report as sufficient. I still believe you, the public, should be directing your disapproval to the Council for failing to do appropriate due diligence and failing to provide sufficient direction to staff rather than whining about the performance or intentions of staff.
Your role & responsibility as a citizens. Vote. Be informed and engaged. Stay in touch. When you know more about an issue than we do, share your expertise with the Council so we can ask better questions and give staff better direction. When you have a question about proposed Council action, ask early (and often). If you have a specific and verifiable complaint about city staff, tell the Council. We do need constructive criticism. I welcome suggestions for doing things better. I want to know about specific problems. General griping, especially after the fact, is not helpful.
Public relations, information flow, and the open meeting law. I have a new respect and new loathing for the Open Meeting law after a year in office. The Council could do more and do it faster if we could just sit down as a group and in smaller groups behind closed doors and wrestle with issues. Or have a little discussion via e-mail before the meeting to agree on meeting strategy and discussion points. We could agree on our message before we broadcast it. So, we could have efficiency, clarity and unity at the expense of transparency, accountability and participation.
But, since we do deliberate and decide in public, the process is going to be political (and arguably less candid) and messy. I read the Northfield News with some trepidation because it sometimes seems that only the least relevant but most incendiary comments are quoted while the “real” issues aren’t explained. But how should the newspaper sum up hours of disorderly discussion? Clearly, the News is not enough. You can watch the Council on KYMN (streaming live) or NTV, but the Council needs to find better ways to inform you of what we’re planning to do (with enough advance notice so your participation and input can be meaningful) as well as what we have done. The challenges: who will do it, when will it be done, and what would be sufficient?
My dream (and I do dream about city government at night) is that the Council and staff will make progress in 2010 toward creating a city culture of sharing information rather than controlling it. Happy New Year.