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Posted on October 26, 2020 at 10:41 AM by Tiffany Bradbury
This week I have the honor of hosting our newest council member, Vivian Sanchez-Jones for new council member orientation. A full orientation will wait until the new Council is selected in a little over a week, but an abbreviated version is being offered prior to Ms. Sanchez-Jones attending her first council meeting. As I, along with the City Attorney, City Auditor and City Clerk, planned the agenda for the orientation, I contemplated what the most important things are to convey to a new council member. The following is a bit of what came to mind.
Serve the People
No question, most important for any council member and staff member (myself included) to acknowledge is who sits at the top of the organization chart - citizens. Whether formulating policy or delivering services it is done so, on behalf of the citizens. The best of us recognize there are 100,000 individual priorities, ideas, and perspectives and that it is our responsibility to balance each of those to arrive at solutions that benefit the most while not creating inequities. For a council member this necessitates listening to many perspectives and opinions, openly debating pros and cons of varying options and then acting.
Council is a Body
Every council member arrives with a set of personal objectives, tested and refined on the campaign trail and during hundreds of interactions with citizens. Understandably they seek to advance these objectives and see movement on the issues they care about. Council though, acts as a body - most generally through ordinances and resolutions. No single council member, not even the Mayor can affect policy or change on their own. At a minimum, it takes four of the seven to agree on a course of action. Just as it is critical for individual council members to learn from citizens what is important, it is essential that a council member become skilled at seeking and achieving consensus among their fellow council members and perhaps even more significantly, honor the decisions of the body, even if they disagree with the outcome.
Solve Problems through Policies
Not surprisingly, most council members view themselves as problem solvers - after all, they were elected to get certain things done - help people solve the problems they shared with them during the campaign. Indeed, it is the Council’s role to address issues and solve problems but this must be achieved through policy not politics. By this I mean as a body the Council must adopt plans, budgets and ordinances that address issues, not individually direct staff toward a solution or seek to directly solve the problem themselves. Street repairs made on the basis of professionally prepared condition assessments aligned with sound engineering practices versus repairs based upon who has the personal cell phone number of a council member serves as a clear illustration of this principle.
In our Council-Manager form of government the Council establishes policies, states desired outcomes and approves the financial resources that the City Manager and staff will use to progress on the Council’s stated priorities and outcomes. The Council sets the direction and expectations and the Manager and team execute on these.
A new council member must be prepared to be disliked by some of the people some of the time while working to avoid being disliked by most of the people most of the time. With 100,000 opinions of what needs to be done, how and when, nearly any decision will have its detractors and in today’s world few are shy about sharing their displeasure and all too often do so in very personal and mean-spirited ways. A council member needs to quickly reconcile with this reality, determine how to use opposition to help refine their positions and thinking and yes, to develop that thick-skin.
Have Fun and Know You Are Changing the World (or at least Roanoke)
Serving on Council can and should be a rewarding (and dare I say, fun) experience. On behalf of their fellow citizens they are working to make lives better and ensure everyone has an equitable opportunity at succeeding to the best of their abilities. Every year you play a part in ensuring $300 million of essential services are delivered to community members. Delivery of those services are critical for the well-being of community members - that 911 call, much needed housing assistance, the opportunity to learn, a safe place to play or knowing that garbage generated will be removed and safely disposed of are but a few examples.
Service on City Council is a great honor and responsibility. I consider myself very fortunate to serve the Council as a body and each individual council member as they seek the best for those that live, work, learn, play, or conduct business in our city. It is an honor to aid new council members as they arrive so that they may have the greatest level of success on your behalf.
— Bob Cowell
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