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Effective Relations: Roles of Mayors, Councilmembers, and Appointed Officials

Larry Hanson, Executive Director, Georgia Municipal Association
Last Updated: January 16, 2018
One of the most important aspects of effective government is defining, understanding, and accepting the appropriate roles of elected and ap­pointed officials. In local governments today, there are three primary forms of government: the council-manager, mayor-council, and com­mission forms. Nearly half of all governments in the United States today utilize the council-manager form of government. Newly elected officials often find that their preconceived ideas about roles and responsibilities are inconsistent with their form of govern­ment. Following the excitement of a campaign and the formality of the oath of office, they find that the process of governing is not nearly as simple as it may have seemed from the outside. Questions arise as to the role of the mayor or councilmember in relation to the city manager, ad­ministrator, or clerk. It is quickly discovered that to achieve success, it is imperative that elected officials and staff work together successfully. This recognition, in turn, creates an atmosphere of trust and respect that leads to a well-run organization that can focus on its primary mission of providing efficient, effective, and responsive public services.

Being an effective elected official is not easy. It can be exciting, chal­lenging, and rewarding, but also painful, frustrating, and contro­versial. Elected leadership can successfully bring a community together, or it can divide it. Newly elected officials are also challenged by unfamiliar processes, laws and mandates, and public scrutiny. They quickly learn the challenge of governing while dealing with mandatory open meetings requirements, passionate differences of opinion from individuals and organizations about what is best for the community, and constant attention and scrutiny from the news media. Persons previously looked upon as community leaders may be viewed with skepticism. In this difficult environment, it is imperative to understand and clearly define the proper roles of elected officials and staff.

Experience has shown that successful cities, leaders, and model local governments generally share a common set of characteristics:
  1. Elected and appointed officials share a mutual understanding and acceptance of their respective roles.
  2. Trust and respect is shared between the appointed and elected officials.
  3. Teamwork is demonstrated in all actions, and both elected of­ficials and appointed staff understand that success is achieved through partnership.
  4. Communications are open, honest, and consistent with expecta­tions and outcomes clearly understood.
  5. Planning is a part of the organizational culture and includes visioning, goal setting, and short- and long-range planning.
  6. The city is operated in a businesslike manner.

Understanding and Acceptance of Roles 


In a municipal organization, it is important that elected officials and ap­pointed staff clearly understand and agree on their respective roles as de­fined by their form of government, the city charter, and the code of ordi­nances. As a general rule, the governing body is the legislative body, and its members are the community’s decision makers. Power is centralized in the elected body, which sets policy, approves a budget, and determines the tax rate. The elected body also focuses on the community's goals, major projects, and long-term considerations such as community growth, land-use development, capital improvement plans, capital financing, and strategic planning. The elected body frequently hires a professional manager to carry out the administrative responsibilities, and it supervises the manager's performance. In addition, the mayor typically presides at meetings, serves as a community spokesperson, facilitates communica­tion and understanding between elected and appointed officials, assists the elected body in setting goals, and serves as a promoter and defender of the community. In addition, the mayor serves as a key representative in intergovernmental relations. The elected body, the mayor, and the manager constitute a policy development and management team.

The appointed official or manager is hired to serve the elected body and the community and to bring to the local government the benefits of education, training, and experience in administering local govern­ment operations and management. The manager prepares a budget for consideration; recruits, hires, and supervises government staff; serves as the elected body's chief advisor; develops and makes recommendations on various policies, procedures, and ordinances; develops capital plans; and carries out the policies as set by the governing body. Elected officials and citizens count on the manager to provide complete and objective information, present alternatives, and explain the short- and long-term consequences of proposed actions or inactions.

The art of effective government begins with a clear understanding and acceptance of clearly defined roles. It is true that there is some flex­ibility based on the skills, talents, and abilities of the members, but in most cases, roles are clearly defined. It is often best to begin with a review of the city charter and code of ordinances. These documents clearly dis­tinguish between the role of elected officials in policy development and the creation of legislation versus the staff's responsibility of administration and day-to-day operation and management. In its purest form, elected officials establish policy and enact laws, and administrators carry out those policies and laws. In this sense, the government works much like a major corporation in that the board of directors sets policy and provides oversight, and the CEO carries out that policy and provides professional oversight to achieve the corporation's goals and objectives. There are times when the distinction between roles is not completely clear or when elected officials wish to exercise more influence over day-to-day opera­tions. These problems generally lead to organizational ineffectiveness or conflict among the parties. They can also create confusion among staff members and the public at large as to who is in charge of what.

The most effective elected officials direct their time and energies to legislation, policy development, and operational oversight. Oversight can best be carried out by ensuring that the city has professional and competent staff that is responsive, resourceful, efficient, and effective. Managers and administrators need broad oversight to manage the dif­ficult organizational, legal, personnel, financial, and other administrative matters that occur on a regular basis. Elected officials should empower their manager but hold them accountable through regular updates and performance reviews.
 

Trust and Confidence


For any local government to be successful there must be trust and confi­dence between the elected body and the appointed official. The manager must respect the fact that citizens have elected these representatives and that they have certain responsibilities to both the public at large as well as their oath of office. Likewise, elected officials must have respect for the form of government citizens have chosen and confidence in their manager to carry out the responsibilities of the position. Both parties share common goals to improve the quality of life, create jobs, protect the public, and provide efficient and effective services. Trust and confi­dence grow in an environment in which common goals and objectives are established, such goals are monitored and measured, and parties work together to achieve those goals. Elected officials can cultivate trust and foster confidence by expressing their opinions in a constructive manner when policy is being formulated, rather than after the fact or as a sur­prise at the time of implementation. Managers prefer guidance while developing policy, and such a process usually leads to an outcome satisfactory to all. A good manager will make the life of an elected official easier and more successful, while a poor manager will make the job more difficult, less rewarding, and less successful.

There are instances in which elected officials do not have confidence and trust in the manager. In such cases, it is best that the relationship be terminated. Lack of trust, conflict between staff and elected officials, and lack of confidence create an environment that has negative consequences for all parties involved.

Trust and respect also include how disagreements are handled. Both parties should first discuss issues in private and one-on-one. If such issues cannot be resolved, it is often best to seek the involvement of an inde­pendent third party. Regardless, disagreements or differences of opinion can and should be handled with dignity and respect.
 

Teamwork


Any team or organization is only as strong as the sum of its parts. Teams combine the strengths and efforts of all members over those of an individ­ual member. Successful teams generally accomplish more than successful individuals. Becoming an effective team member is not always easy and often takes a great deal of effort. The following suggestions may help:
  • Each person on the team has a view that is important to them and deserves to be heard.
  • Some of the best ideas come from listening rather than speaking.
  • Debate is healthy and can lead to a better outcome. Once debate is finished and a decision is reached, the decision of the team should be supported.
  • Policy should be developed with the input and advice of staff. Likewise, staff should involve and include elected officials in pol­icy development.
  • Teams function best with a clear understanding of roles and hi­erarchy. Particularly, an elected official should not consult with employees other than those who report directly to the elected body.
  • Effective team players never worry about credit. They focus on outcomes. They work to build consensus and “sell” their vision. By doing so, others join in. Those who focus on the result and outcome rather than the credit consistently achieve the most success. Effective team players also give and share credit when appropriate. 

Communication


Successful relations between elected and appointed officials always re­quire open, consistent, and continuous communication. Information must flow in both directions. A primary responsibility of a manager is to keep elected officials informed in a variety of ways, including the following:
  • one-on-one conversations between the manager and each elected official, as needed
  • monthly reports on each department's activities, finances, capital projects, etc.
  • recommendations with justifications on issues considered by the elected body
  • special reports on politically sensitive topics or those that are of major interest and concern to residents
  • annual reports, particularly in summary form
  • minutes of meetings of boards, authorities, and commissions, and
  • notifications of emergencies either in written form or by telephone.
Opportunities should be provided for regular, informal conversations and dialogue. For instance, some agendas have a designated place for a manager's report and council comments. Such opportunities should be used for constructive, open communication and can build camaraderie for all involved.
 

Planning


Businesses and organizations are successful because they utilize planning as a management tool and a guide for the future. Cities should establish a mission, a vision, and a set of organizational values. These guides can be the foundation for the development of goals and short- and long-range planning. An effective tool for short-term goal setting and planning is a planning retreat. Away from the normal distractions and focused on a common objective, individuals often respond with their best ideas. Use of a facilitator often can help with the process by focusing on the task at hand, being objective and neutral, and sharing insight based on profes­sional experiences as well as successes and failures of other communities. Short-term goals should establish implementation steps and timelines. They should be measurable. Those that involve funding should be in­cluded in an appropriate budget or capital improvement program.

Long-range plans are often the most difficult to develop. Citizens may be shocked by long-term growth plans or future land-use patterns. However, it is necessary for local governments to work effectively, maxi­mize use of resources, and comply with ever more challenging permit and regulatory requirements to meet the needs of future long-range planning efforts. Long-range planning is a necessity, not a luxury. Too often, attention is diverted to potholes, property taxes, and a “how-will-­this-affect-me” attitude among citizens. Elected officials must stay fo­cused on the big picture and plan if a successful future is to be achieved. In addition to patience and compromise, effective long-range planning takes time, perseverance, and fortitude. It is important that there be a planning process that does not hurry to create a failure but is patient to create a success.
 

Operating as a Business


One of the harsh realities of local government is that it must be operated as a business. In the past, many local governments knew that they were the only provider of many services and that citizens therefore had little choice but to tolerate poor customer service. This attitude is not the case in most cities today. Elected officials should treat citizens as customers and make conscientious efforts to resolve issues. However, it must also be understood that it is beyond the financial resources and, at times, the role of the local government to solve every problem. Local governments must understand the expectations of citizens, govern and budget accord­ingly to meet those expectations, and avoid the trap of political expediency by trying to solve every problem by spending more money. Elected officials should also work to treat all constituents fairly and equitably and to understand that at times it is necessary to say “no.”
 

Conclusion


Effective government is a partnership between elected and appointed officials. It begins with identifying and establishing the roles of all par­ties based on legal instruments such as the city charter and its code of ordinances and resolutions and the city’s type of government. The most successful elected officials direct their talents, skills, and abilities to leg­islation, policy development, and operational oversight. They set clearly defined and achievable goals and objectives and make sure that appoint­ed staff understands what will constitute success. Effective local govern­ment requires trust and confidence. Efforts must be made to develop mutual trust and respect between elected officials and staff.

Most successful organizations work as a team. It is important to ap­preciate the views of others, balance listening with speaking, and support the decision of the team once it is made. Remember, employees look to the elected body for leadership and direction. A divisive elected body will lead to a fractured staff and, ultimately, failure. It is important to respect the democratic process more than any single point of view. Elected of­ficials should vote on the content of the question and not on how other members are voting, nor should they worry about the credit but focus on the desired outcome.

Elected and appointed officials must communicate with one an­other. Information flow, regular reports, and knowledge of problems as well as successes are critical to a well-run organization. Communication must be open, candid, and honest. Likewise, proper planning, both short- and long-range, is essential for success. Successful cities operate in a fiscally responsible, businesslike manner. They focus on core initia­tives that are consistent with the mission and vision of the organization and guide their progress through goals, objectives, and measurement of outcomes. Successful leaders influence outcomes and have the ability to convince others not to follow them but to join them.
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