Welcome to week one of the Cookingham Connection! This week, we hear from Chris Jordan, the city manager of West Linn, Oregon. Chris Jordan began his tenure as City Manager of West Linn in October 2005. For the previous 10 years, Mr. Jordan worked for the City of Lake Oswego where he was the Assistant City Manager overseeing several departments including Finance and Parks and Recreation. The Cornell University graduate also spent nine years working in Washington, D.C. with the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.
Never forget that the council, to the best of its ability, expresses the will of the people. There will be times when you will not understand why the council takes certain actions, but you will find that the council is generally right, and the members express public opinion as they see it and as they learn it from their constituents.
When we choose a career in the public sector, we all need to recognize that the final authority rests with those who have the votes: in elections, it’s the voters at the polls, and on legislative items, it’s the legislators themselves. In local government, that’s the City Council.
In our role as city managers or city staff, we not only need to understand this relationship, but always take action that reflects our support of it. Does that mean that we will always agree with our councils? Of course not. Just as all members of our council won’t always agree. But, we must support the process that leads to the decision, and we must support the outcome.
In his statement, Cookingham mentions that “you will not understand why the council takes certain actions.” I would disagree with this. As city managers, we may not always agree with council decisions, but we should certainly understand the decision and the reasons for the action. It is our job to have a good feel for the priorities of our councilors and communicate with them enough to understand the rationale behind their decisions. We may be surprised from time to time, but we should understand the decision.
Cookingham also states a council’s decisions are “generally right.” I would agree with this, with a caveat: when setting policy, I don’t believe in “right” and “wrong” decisions. I believe that there are better and worse decisions, but right and wrong rarely happen. This, in part, is what makes our jobs so challenging: educating volunteer councilors of the subtle nuances and implications of the decisions they are asked to make when there is no clear right or wrong decision.
However, Cookingham is absolutely correct that most council decisions prove to be better than what we may have anticipated. There are numerous occasions where staff will make a recommendation only to have the elected officials choose to go in a different direction. I would recommend not necessarily attempting to evaluate the merits of any singular decision, but every few years reflect back on the entirety of the decisions of a council, and I’m confident that what you will find is that these decisions have moved the community in a positive direction. And, part of that, is the long term political viability of those making the decisions which, hopefully leads to a positive, trusting relationship between the municipal government and its constituents.
For example, my city had the opportunity to host a large transportation sustainability initiative. As exciting as this project was for staff and many in the community, there were others who looked at it as an inconvenience that would not directly benefit the community. After one contentious meeting on the topic, I spoke with members of the Council, and although I believe some may have been convinced to support the project, we decided not to pursue it further. Was this disappointing? Yes. But to the Councilors, approving the project would have meant significant political opposition for them, and a huge distraction from the Council’s other goals. We’ll never know if this was the “right” decision, but we do know that we have a very stable council with a trusting community which is a very positive outcome from all the decisions the Council has made.
Ultimately, we all benefit from that relationship.
The Cookingham Connection blog series is published in partnership with Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL). ELGL members are local government leaders with a passion for connecting, communicating, and educating.