We’re continuing our series in the Cookingham Connection with a perspective from an emerging leader in local government. You heard what the city manager of Durham, North Carolina had to say about Cookingham’s 15th guidepost. Now hear it from the perspective of Jim Lenner. Jim is the Village Manager for Johnstown, Ohio. Prior to that, he was the village’s planner. He earned his MA in Public Affairs from Park University in Kansas City, Missouri.
Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut during council meetings. This is one of the most important principles in the field of council-manager relations. I have known more managers who have talked themselves out of jobs than into jobs. The members of the council are elected by the people and know something about the business of municipal government. When they want information from the manager, they will ask him for it, and it is well to have the information when requested.
They call the meetings “council meetings” and not “city manager meetings” for a reason. The council meetings are a venue to discuss public business, and our jobs as managers is to make sure our council members have the best information, analysis, and data available to them. It is their time to show the public they are doing their job and doing it well.
We are often questioned by members of the public or by council members about information or impacts on policy issues. In my first few council meetings, I found myself making an educated guess at a question that ended up being inaccurate. That is not what you want in an open meeting setting, or any other setting for that matter. When questions are pointed at you and you are not 100% sure of the answer, I have found it best to simple state that “I will research your question and report back in two weeks.” I make sure I listen intently to their question to ensure accuracy in my reporting. To date, that process has proven invaluable.
The role of running the meeting is not ours as managers. I often tried to control the meeting so that it ran smoothly. I learned the meeting is not ours to control, but that of the council. I also learned meetings don’t run smoothly, and that is okay. Sometimes the best discussion came from dissent and confusion during a public meeting. By keeping my mouth closed, I was able to listen to opposing thoughts and ideas of both council members and the public on policy decisions.
I recently learned by experience that council meetings are not just for dialogue between the council, manager, and public, but with department directors and staff. I found myself talking about topics that I had limited knowledge of. I once spoke of a new wastewater treatment process when the service director was there and could recite the data in his sleep. Why was I attempting to talk about a foreign topic when the subject matter expert was sitting in the audience? I needed to keep my ears open and my mouth shut at that time. In this worst-case scenario, the information I was speaking about was misinformation at best and not entirely true at worst.
Our society loves immediate information and reaction as soon as it is available. We prepare ourselves for most situations during a council meeting, but cannot prepare for all situations. It is best to get the information to council members prior to the meeting so they can make informed decisions and lessen the amount of questioning during the meeting. However, members of the public usually want answers immediately, and they do not want to wait. That is something you cannot control as easily. Be sure to listen to the request and answer truthfully if you do not know.
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.