Emerging Generations in Local Government – 1

Cookingham Connection - Emily LWe’re continuing our series in the Cookingham Connection with a perspective from an emerging leader in local government. You heard what a city manager had to say about Cookingham’s 1st guidepost. Now hear it from the lens of Emily Leuning, an intern for the City of Sherman, Oregon and the City of West Linn, Oregon.

Guidepost #1:

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.

I’m new to this whole City Council business. Really new. The entirety of my experience with councils consists of Parks and Rec episodes, the mandatory city council meeting our class had to attend in 8th grade, and more recently, reading transcripts of Portland, Sherwood, and West Linn council meetings. (Side note: if you haven’t seen Patton Oswalt’s Pawnee City Council Star Wars filibuster outtake, click here. You’re welcome.)

When I initially read this guidepost I thought, “Yeah, straightforward… easy,” but then, after a few more readings, Cookingham’s qualifiers got me thinking. In reference to constituents’ opinions, he says Council makes decisions “to the best of its ability” and “as they see it and as they learn it from their constituents.”

The council’s ability to make the best decision may be hampered by a number of things: lack of representation, complicated city code, concerns about re-election, etc. To me, the most significant of these is the fact that councils don’t often reflect the community they serve. How many councils today consist solely of white, middle-aged men of a certain socioeconomic status? Or have seven members, two of which are female? Are any of the communities they represent all male (or 5/7 male)? Political representation at all levels has certainly improved since 1956, but that doesn’t mean that the job is done.

The final part of this guidepost refers to council members expressing public opinion “as they see it and as they learn it from their constituents.” However, unless the community is extremely small, there is no way that council members are definitively able to know what their constituents think about a particular issue (of course, there aren’t too many examples of governance by direct democracy outside of recalls and referendums).

Granted, most city councilors have lived within the community for years or even decades and likely have a general idea of their constituents’ psychographics. However, it seems to me, based on my (admittedly limited) knowledge of city council meetings, that the citizens who show up and get involved in the city council process are usually those who are very much for or against a particular project or referendum.

Citizen input is a fundamental component of the process, and again, I suggest that increased representation would help the council improve the quality of its decision-making. Find a way to get input from people who don’t have time to attend council meetings because they are single parents who can’t afford a babysitter. Find a way to ascertain what the college students and recent college grads think about the issue. Find a way to get people involved who have traditionally been left out of the decision-making process. When a broader range of people get involved, the councilors hear from a wider range of citizens and opinions other than the passionate pro and con can be explored.

Personally, I would like to have been part of the Portland City Council back in April because of this gem I came across in the council agenda: Request of Barry S. to address Council regarding living from the outside of planet earth.

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.

2 responses

  1. I am the Mayor of a town of 4400 people, small town USA.while I know a lot of people in town, there are many I do not. we do the usual newspaper articles in our weekly hometown paper and we get article in a local daily and another weekly. They represent a short version of any vote. The council does have a lot of knowledge that is either given at meetings or FOIA available. My best contact with residents is social media. I have roughly 800 residents of 1200 likes. Amazing 76% are female. I get a lot of feedback this way on the issues we have. It is hard to get people to run for City office. we have 7 men and one woman, and our city attorney is female. If someone has an idea to get more involvement in city gov’t, I would love to hear about it. Apathy is a problem. I have found that the more info you give the public, the more dis interested they seem to become, unless they have a grip about the issue. ?????

    1. That’s an area in which a lot of local governments struggle.

      Have you tried doing a citizen survey asking how your residents like to receive news, in which type of news they’re interested, why they aren’t more involved, etc.?

      A lot of cities receive great feedback by conducting an online survey and/or including it as an insert inside a bill all residents receive (like a utilities bill).

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