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Time for a Change in Your Local Government Organization?

Nationally, we’re all embarrassed and frustrated by the gridlock and lack of civility in Washington D.C., but what about here in the other Washington? The November elections presented many different changes for some of our local governments: whether changes in the forms of government from mayor-council to council-manager or vice versa, changes in council majorities and policy direction, or changes in the executive, whether mayors, city managers or city administrators from retirements, resignation or termination. Any combination of these presents a leadership challenge and opportunity for the city council.  Handle them properly and nobody may notice, do it poorly and everyone will notice!

Change in Form of Government

Changes in the form of government are rarely brought about because of academic debate and political science theory. More likely changes in form come about because of the perceived lack of action or unpopular actions of the prior council and administration. Regardless, when involved in a change in form of government, it is essential that the council lead and clearly communicate its leadership goals.

Council Leadership

As the old saying goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Elections are often about what someone doesn’t want, but once elected, what do they want to help accomplish?  And, as a member of a council, regardless of form of government, the individual councilmember has no real authority. It is only as part of a council majority that the council as a body has the power to set policy and the direction for the city. Early in the calendar year following council elections, the council and its executive officer, mayor, manager or administrator, should hold a goal-setting workshop retreat. Council leadership is about reviewing and setting the vision, values, strategies and goals for the city, and then clearly communicating the city’s goals to the community.

The Executive’s Job

So if the council’s job is to set the policy direction and goals for the city—the WHAT—it is the executive’s job, whether as mayor, city administrator working for a mayor, or a city manager working for the council, to figure out HOW to get the work done and goals accomplished. Changes of mayors or council majorities do not require changes in the professional local government managers who support the mayor and council. Any local government professional can change direction, like a ship’s captain heading to a different port, as long as it’s not illegal or unethical. Some of our state’s most successful chief executive officers/chief operating officers have worked for the same city for different mayors over 10-20+ years.  Especially if the council wants a change in direction, it may be most helpful to have an experienced and knowledgeable “ship’s captain” who “knows the ropes.” Then after 6 months or so, if the council still feels the lack of progress towards their goals, that’s when they want to make changes.

Ask These Questions First

But before considering changes in the professional staff, the mayor and council should honestly ask themselves a couple questions: 1) Have we clearly communicated our goals and expectations? And 2) Are we upset with the way the policy is being implemented, or is it the policy that needs to be changed?

It’s All about Teamwork

If it is “Time for a Change” in your city, has council clearly articulated the goals and changes in policy direction it wants? And, has council truly give the mayor or city manager/administrator the time, resources and opportunity to succeed? Good government isn’t about the form of government as such, but truly about the elected and appointed leaders of the city and how they work together as a team.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Bob Jean

About Bob Jean

Bob Jean writes for MRSC as a guest author.

Bob Jean retired in 2010 after 15 years as the City Manager for University Place, Washington. He has over 35 years of city and county management experience. He is a past Board Member for AWC. He received the ICMA national Award for Staff Development and Training. He currently serves as an advisor to cities and counties as a Range Rider for WCMA.

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.