Emerging Generations in Local Government – 3

Cookingham Connection - Noel BWe’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 3rd guidepost. Now hear it from the perspective of Noel Bernal, the city administrator for Falfurrias, Texas.

Guidepost #3:

You have to “give and take” all along the way, but when you must give ground to the “left,” be sure that when you return toward the center, you go to the “right” as far as possible. In “giving,” never do anything that may be illegal or that is contrary to the basic principles of the plan of government with which you are working.

As I approach my fifth year in local government, with four of them as a City Manager, I have practiced in the geographic region in Texas mostly associated with being “blue” while the State has been dominated and is synonymous with the “red” political affiliation. Deep South Texas has traditionally been known for volatile politics in the various levels of government that intersect in the region, especially City and County; but over the years, cities have become more progressive.

This has led to an even more challenging climate for professional local government management since this political behavior has conditioned the public to consider partisan politics as the norm. Elected officials at times appear to embrace the perilous politics.

The result is elected officials being programmed at running in slates that lists the multiple candidates vying under the same platform and agenda. With the battle lines drawn, the City Manager is set to take on an environment of tension that is irrelevant to being “red” or “blue” or what each respective political ideology represents.

As a professional local government manager in this region, my political affiliation takes the back seat since it becomes more important that I assure the governing body of the City that is considering selecting me as their City Manager, or is in the middle of an election cycle, that my policy recommendations are apolitical, professional, and what I feel is best for the community.

I was appointed on a 3-2 vote in each of the first two cities that I have served, but I have successfully gone through three election cycles between both cities that involved changes in the governing body. Furthermore, I am the first City Manager in one of those cities. My effectiveness can be linked to my approach in working with all council members. I have emphasized that I work for the “majority,” which involves working across party lines. Respect, honesty, integrity, and strong communication between myself and each elected official has allowed me to work on planning and policy-making and not extracurricular issues.

Cities in South Texas are deserving of professional city management, but it does take a deep understanding of the political culture and history to be effective. There have been tough decisions that I had to make at each city due to the organizational and infrastructure challenges I inherited. To make matters worse, my decisions led to an increased political involvement by candidates who supposedly ran due to the actions being made by the City Council because of the City Manager.

One City faced a wastewater treatment plant exceeding capacity, while the other had an organizational divide since the City-owned water, wastewater, and gas utilities systems were operated by an independent board that provided limited oversight to the City Council. Doing the right thing in each situation was especially difficult since City Council action had to be politically justified in some way. In my view, my recommendations were based on fixing an infrastructure breakdown to avoid a State takeover on one hand and to eliminate a major organizational inefficiency on the other.

Dealing with the issues facing each City was not as difficult as working with the public. Each time, the public responded in a skeptical manner due to them only knowing of politically-motivated decisions and not necessarily based on professionally-oriented decisions that addressed the underlying problems in the community.

I have not faced situations where members of the governing body have questioned my political affiliation, but I have been labeled by members of the public as being Republican since my recommendations involve financial analysis to support decision-making. While I may have been associated with being Republican, I am proud to say that I have not been associated with a group of political candidates. There have been times where I have made unpopular recommendations where I show no partiality. At times, they were against members of the governing body who hired me.

A mentor who introduced me to City Management advised that I become active in the State association for professional managers. This has helped me in understanding the role of a city manager, personally and professionally. Not only should City Managers aim at being unaffiliated voters, they should aim at showing that they do not push the agenda of any group of elected officials by their actions “on and off the court.”

I know of some City Managers who have fallen prey to the partisan politics due to them picking sides for job preservation or whose career has had limited success since their reputation has been tainted by them being known as “being political” and not professional.

My approach has been to remind the City Council that I am to always be a value-added to their community through my professional management and leadership ability. As far as the politics, I have adopted a philosophy I once read that stated, “By not wasting mental energy worrying about what might happen to you (even if it means your job), you can put all your effort into making things happen”

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.

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