Have you made a “new year’s resolution” for the new fiscal year that begins July 1?
During my almost three decades preparing City staff reports, I would often find myself making new fiscal year’s resolutions. First and foremost, I would promise myself I would not ever be late again when preparing my staff reports for the Council agenda. I promised that I would work harder to organize my time, and that I would stop procrastinating when submitting my staff reports to the City Clerk.
See, my problem with late staff reports was not always my lack of organization or procrastination. Oftentimes it was the “fires” I would have to put out as Finance Director. When the City Manager asked me to take care of an urgent issue, it did not matter that I had staff reports due (or any other priority task).
The City Manager was my most important customer, and he or she was my priority ahead of any other task, including staff reports. The fact that I had staff reports to prepare was NEVER an excuse for not responding to the City Manager. I could NEVER be too busy to address City Manager requests, even if I had to work overtime that pay period. My City Manager would never forget my efforts or the sacrifices I made. He or she would always make it up to me in terms of time off, adding to the 40 hours of Administrative Leave I had accrued in my leave bank each year.
In an upcoming CitySpeak newsletter I will discuss precisely why the Finance Director (and other Department Heads) needs to view the City Manager as the most important “customer.” Especially because, as you know, “the customer is always right” (well, almost always). More on this later. J
WHAT IS INVOLVED IN A STAFF REPORT?
Most if not all communications between City staff and the City Council are made through the all-important staff report. The components of the staff report vary slightly from City to City, but here are the most common components of the staff report:
RECOMMENDATION: Most staff reports begin with a call to action or for approval by the City Council (or Board or other Governing Body of the municipality). This section of the staff report begins with “It is respectfully requested that the Council approve…” Actually, not all staff insert the words “respectfully,” but I do as this is the way I was shown, and I appreciate the formality. This section is where you state succinctly what you are asking your City Council or Governing Body to approve. An example is as follows: “It is respectfully requested that the City Council adopt the Fiscal Year 2018/19 Budget and the enabling Budget Resolution #2018-151,” or something along those lines.
BACKGROUND: The background section is where you provide more information on the agenda item you are presenting. This section can be a short as one paragraph or 10 pages or longer, depending on the agenda item being considered. The City Manager will decide whether the Background section of your staff report needs to be shortened or broadened. At some point, if your Background section becomes too lengthy, it may be best to turn it into its own study (usually a consultant study) and include it as an Attachment to the staff report.
ALTERNATIVES: This section of the staff report is where you give your City Council a description of the various options you considered before making your recommendation. Here you will discuss the pros and cons of each of the Alternatives you considered and analyzed, along with supporting documentation on why you decided against the alternatives you did not choose to make your recommendation. In the end of your analysis, you MUST come up with, and explain, the #1 Alternative you will recommend as the best course of action to your City Council or Governing Body.
FISCAL IMPACT: This section of the staff report is where you provide an analysis of the estimated cost, funding source(s), and impact to the City’s Budget and Balance Sheet. During my years as City Finance Director, I followed the practice of preparing a Budget “Amendment” Resolution for every single staff report that impacted the City budget. This served various purposes. First, it made clear the exact Budget Account Number that would be used to code the expenditure for the Department making the purchase requested in the staff report. Second, the resolution made easier the “Reconciliation” of Adopted vs Revised Budget analysis that is requested by the City’s independent auditors at fiscal year end, during preparation of the CAFR. Lastly, the Budget Amendment Resolution made it clear for City Departments the specific fund, department, and object of expense coding they wanted in their staff report recommendation.
RECOMMENDATION: This Recommendation section is the most important section of your staff report. Without a specific call to action in the Recommendation section of the staff report, your research and write up will not be of much use to the City Council. If you want to see the City Council get frustrated with you and your staff report, ask them to choose “for you” which alternative is best. You will find that in most cases, they will get angry with us as public administrators when we leave them the tough job of making a recommendation. Remember, that’s why WE get paid the big bucks, to make recommendations and decisions for our organizations, prepared to stand behind our recommendations!
In a future CitySpeak newsletter, I will expand on the last point about the importance of the Recommendation section of the staff report. For now, I have recapped what most of you already know about the structural components of the Staff Report.
CITY CLERK WANTS YOUR STAFF REPORTS NOW!
So is the City Clerk nagging you for staff reports right now? Is the City Manager breathing down your neck because you haven’t even sent your staff report to the City Attorney for review? How did you get yourself in this stressful situation…again?
Most City Clerks maintain an Agenda Planning Calendar that all Department Heads review during the weekly Department Head meeting with the City Manager.
The Agenda Planning Calendar looks up to three or even six months into the future to remind City staff when staff reports need to be submitted to the City Attorney, City Manager, or other staff for review prior to appearing on either the Consent Calendar or as a Department Report or other section of the Council agenda. It is in your best interest as Department Head to have discussions with all relevant stakeholders regarding your staff reports, well in advance of the due date for your report.
Stop the madness regarding staff reports!
Be realistic and reasonable when putting your staff reports on the City Clerk’s Agenda Planning Calendar. You WON’T usually be in trouble if you need to move your staff report to a later agenda. However, you WILL be in trouble if your staff report is due on Thursday for the Council agenda that was dated two weeks from last Tuesday. It does not matter that you’re late because you have four staff reports and two public hearings; the main issue is that your staff reports are not ready NOW for the NEXT agenda packet as promised. Don’t schedule the agenda item if your staff report is not ready!
Bottom Line: If you know you’re not going to make the Council agenda, be proactive with the City Clerk and the City Manager – tell them you need to bump the staff report to the next agenda. They will likely not even want an explanation; in fact, they’ll probably breathe a sigh of relief at one less staff report to review, print, and copy for the agenda packet for the next Council agenda (unless it is time-sensitive, like approving the City budget prior to June 30).
As Department Heads, we have many staff reports that are time-sensitive and cannot be pushed back; however, thanks to our City Clerk and the Agenda Planning Calendar, we have months of advance notice to plan and coordinate the preparation and review dates for our staff reports. So let’s use that time accordingly to prepare staff reports.
UNDER PROMISE AND OVER DELIVER
I know it is not always possible, but when it is, I like the adage “under promise and over deliver.” Don’t promise to have a staff report ready for the next agenda when you’re not sure if you’ll have all the information you need to submit your report. Rather, give yourself ample time to perform the research, fiscal impact analysis, and the writing and review of the staff report before you even think about telling the City Clerk to add your item to the Agenda Planning Calendar.
Consider doing advance work by discussing the staff report with the Finance Department for the fiscal impact section and for the wording of the budget amendment resolution, if applicable. Also, work with the City Attorney’s office ahead of time to expedite his or her review. Lastly, give the completed staff report to your staff assistant (if you have one) to prepare a Power Point presentation for the Council agenda if possible.
You should make it your standard to have a Power Point presentation for every single staff report you present to the City Council, regardless of whether it gets used or not at the Council meeting. My grandfather always said “one prepared man [or woman] is worth two unprepared men [or women].” This also provides valuable training to your staff assistant, or Deputy Director, for succession planning. As a bonus, it frees you up should you ever not be in the office to answer questions regarding the policy item being proposed in your staff report.
PUSHING BACK AGENDA ITEMS IS NOT ALWAYS POPULAR
Sure you might get some negative comments from the City Manager, wondering why it is taking so long to get your staff report before the City Council. But I would always prefer to deal with having this discussion with the City Manager to the stress of “burning the midnight oil” to meet unrealistic agenda deadlines (and the stress you will cause for the City Clerk’s Office).
Just think about how everyone feels when the City Council agenda packet is not ready for distribution. Or think about the stress from the press when they camp outside the City Clerk’s office waiting for their copy of the agenda packet and it’s not ready – you don’t want to give these folks any reason to be unhappy with you or your City! I will write more about “stress from the press” in a future CitySpeak newsletter, so stay tuned.
Believe it or not, there are many staff members at City Hall who fall into the vicious cycle of turning in late staff reports because of self-imposed agenda deadlines, especially when trying to squeeze one more staff report into a last minute Council agenda item. This becomes ever more problematic when the City Clerk is already working with an unwieldy large agenda packet for the next Council meeting.
As they say, we are sometimes our own worst enemy. The City Manager does not want us to stress about staff reports, but the City Manager does have professional expectations about our ability to manage our time to get staff reports completed on time. Just as important, the City Manager expects you to communicate effectively and well ahead of time. This expectation includes our schedule for having staff reports ready for the City Council agenda calendar.
THE CITY MANAGER IS YOUR PARTNER IN STAFF REPORTS
Don’t be afraid of the City Manager – the City Manager is your partner and your friend when it comes to getting staff reports completed on time. The City Manager was once a Management Assistant and/or Department Director. He or she knows all the work that goes into researching, analyzing, and writing a staff report. All you have to do is communicate clearly and often, during the weekly review of the Agenda Planning Calendar, so you can establish reasonable and realistic deadlines for completing staff reports with your City Manager and the City Clerk’s Office.
And be considerate of our colleagues who assemble the City Council agenda packet. Our lack of planning should not constitute an emergency for the City Clerk’s Office.
Late staff reports create a lot of stress for the staff in the City Clerk’s office and the others involved in preparing this important bi-monthly legislative action in the democratic process that is carried out by the City Council on behalf of the communities they serve. The carrying out of democracy during Council meetings is another important topic I will discuss in a future CitySpeak newsletter.
So again, consider everyone affected by late staff reports at City Hall as an incentive for planning better. When in doubt, bump that staff report to the next Council agenda!
Who knows, if you stop causing yourself stress around staff reports, maybe you can even have “fun” again at the office. You remember when your City job was fun, don’t you? We’ll definitely talk about that topic on a future article.
I LOVE YOUR FEEDBACK…
As always, please call me if you want to share your thoughts on staff reports or any other subject I write about in my newsletter; I would love to talk to you about your feedback on interesting municipal topics for my future CitySpeak newsletters.
I love your feedback!
MUNITEMPS IS HERE TO HELP…
And remember, MuniTemps is here for you should you need temporary help to fill a staff vacancy in your Department next fiscal year.
As president of MuniTemps – Municipal Staffing Solutions, I have served many Cities and Special Districts as Finance Director. My team and I understand municipal organizations, the budget, the CAFR, staff reports, and the nuances of municipalities in serving their communities.
I wish us all success as we work through the execution of municipal best practices and the professional work ethic of continuous work ethic in serving our City organizatoins!
John Herrera, CPA, MPA
President / CEO & Municipal Finance Officer
MuniTemps – Municipal Staffing Solutions
Newsletter Issue: 2018 No. 7