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Moving Toward “We”

This issue of Western City magazine focuses on ethics and public trust in local government. Most of us who serve as city council members and mayors generally devote a significant amount of time and thought to these topics as part of our work.

Because local government is the level of government closest to the people, its elected leaders enjoy some advantages when it comes to the factors that affect public trust. For example, local officials are typically more accessible to their constituents, and members of the public are better able to actually influence the decisions that affect them. The lack of partisan politics at the local level can help council members more readily agree on goals and solutions. As local officials, we are focused on solving the problem at hand rather than scoring points for a political party.

Nevertheless, the erosion of public trust concerns all of us in local government. What can we do to maximize that trust?

State law requires elected local officials to participate in ethics training every two years. The League offers such training through the Institute for Local Government at its New Mayors and Council Members Academy in January and its Planners Institute in March.

Moving From “I” to “We”

Much of this ethics training focuses on the individual: the council member’s personal ethical responsibilities and the laws governing conduct. Local electeds must comply with numerous ethics rules and regulations; sometimes this makes it hard to see the forest for the trees. And ethics is about more than just complying with the law.

All of this emphasis on the individual “I” can distract us from our ethical obligations as a group — the council — to our community and the public.

For example, council members are frequently advised to consider their actions in terms of the “headline” test — how will it look if what I am doing appears in an article on the front page of the local newspaper? However, I suspect that most of us rarely apply that test to our collective actions as a council. Asking ourselves as a group, “How will this appear to the average constituent?” is a good step to take in our decision-making process and as part of our efforts to do the best job for the people we serve. This in turn helps to build their trust in us and local government in general.

Doing a Better Job For the Public

A key element of building public trust is finding ways to have meaningful discussions that reflect community input and help us make the best decisions on behalf of our community. How can we do that?

First, we have to keep in mind that the council is essentially a team whose goal is to focus on the public interest and what’s best for the community. For the council to function effectively, its members must:

  • Embrace civility and mutual respect;
  • Put the need to work together ahead of their personal interests; and
  • Avoid taking it personally when a disagreement arises.

The article “Rebuilding Trust in Local Government” offers council members some excellent tips on ways to communicate that help build public trust.

Second, we should take into account the limitations of the city council meeting process and look beyond the “usual” public outreach methods for ways to improve how we involve the community. Council meetings aren’t designed to be a deliberative process or to serve as a forum for a meaningful exchange of ideas between council members or members of the public and the council. The limitations exist because of the need for an orderly procedure and civility, among other things. But this is exactly why it’s so important to engage the public about the issues before the council meets and makes decisions on those issues.

I often tell people that if you think speaking for three minutes in a council meeting is the best way to influence the final decision, you are dead wrong. Go see your council member in advance and have a one-on-one discussion about the issue if you want to have a real impact on the process. And I believe that council members should be talking to their constituents ahead of time so that those discussions and suggestions can be shared with the entire council during its deliberations. That way, the public’s input can inform the council’s decision-making process in a broader fashion. The League’s research arm offers ideas and other information on how this can be accomplished at www.ca-ilg.org/publicengagement.  

Maybe most important of all, the council should look for ways to engage the community on issues in a way that combines brainstorming and dialogue in a supportive environment. When I consider how this might be done, one idea that comes to mind involves a round-robin type of meeting, where a council member moves from table to table of residents and community members to hear their thoughts on specific issues. It would, in essence, use the “speed dating” model and adapt it for public discourse. Before you dismiss this as a completely daffy idea, let me say that while such an exercise would of course need to be facilitated, it would provide an opportunity both for dialogue and for the council member to hear what the public has to say — with the emphasis on listening, brainstorming and the good ideas that can arise from a little light-hearted banter. As far as I know, this is an idea that has yet to be tried, but it holds some promise. (When designing this type of exercise, keep in mind the provisions of the open meetings law and Brown Act prohibitions against serial meetings.)

Third, we need to develop ways to share what we’ve heard from the public with our fellow council members — as well as with the public — so we can use that information to inform our decision-making process in ways that best serve the needs and interests of our community. Again, this is where council members must set aside the focus on “I” and work collaboratively with the rest of the council using a “we” mindset: How can we do what’s best for our community as a whole?

Finally, we have to consider the headline test but think about it in a new way. The council should ask itself: How will what we are doing appear to the ordinary person on the street, both in terms of the process and the outcome? Will the public be confident that our decision was based on a good understanding of what serves the community’s needs and interests? If the answer isn’t satisfying or convincing, then it’s time to reconsider our approach and our process.

Tell Us What Your City Is Doing

We are interested in what you think about these ideas and in what’s happening in your community. Is your city engaging the public in new and creative ways? For example, on page 12, you can read about the City of Concord’s innovative efforts to involve members of the community in making difficult budget decisions. What is your city doing to encourage public input beyond the traditional approaches? Let us know what you’ve tried and what kind of results were achieved. What will you do differently next time? Visit www.ca-ilg.org/PublicEngagementStoryForm to share your story and experience.