I received a great piece of advice years ago from a former City Manager about working in municipal government as a first-time Director. He told me that you have to budget your words. He said: “Don’t say everything. Speak very little.” The wisdom he offered was that when you’re an appointed official of the municipality you have to be more measured and careful in your communication.

I confess, it took me a while to learn that. Here’s a short story that illustrates my learning curve.

It was just after 5 pm at City Hall. I was the Finance Director at the City of San Jacinto in 1998, and I had just finished a 3-hour budget meeting in the City Manager’s office with two members of the City Council, who made up the Council Budget Committee, and a retired City Manager who’d been brought in for six months while a permanent replacement for the position was recruited.

This was my first experience as a City Finance Director, and I’d been on the job for just a few months. With my college degrees and certificates and five years’ experience as Administrative Analyst, I felt ready for this new position. The two Council members were also new, with just a couple of months under their belt and seemed intent on making a favorable impression on their constituents. The interim City Manager, on the other hand, had over 40 years working in City management.

The meeting was challenging, to say the least. One of the City Councilors kept interrupting me and it became apparent to me she wasn’t looking for solutions. It was my assessment that instead of being interested in facts, she was after ammunition that she could take to the City council meeting in a public session and use to criticize department directors like me. I quickly felt put on the defensive.

In my experience, some City councils are more politically charged, and at this City, the elected representatives seemed to be continually campaigning for re-election from day one. Plus, they didn’t know the first thing about how local government works. Some believe their constituents want them to root out fraud and clean house, and in this first experience as a first-time City Director, it appeared to be the sole focus of this new Council majority. That’s what I know now, after having held many director-level positions in public administration.

However, at the time of this story, I was still learning how to be a director and took offense to what I perceived was a personal attack. I became very frustrated and must have spoken too directly to the Council members. Fortunately for me, the interim City Manager decided to give me the benefit of his experience. He took me aside after the meeting and explained a few things about politics and my place as a municipal employee. He said: “John, don’t you ever open your mouth like that again in a meeting with Council members. Remember this, they are elected officials. You are just part of the staff. YOU HAVE NO STATUS!”

Thank God I took his advice! It has served me well over 25 years of working with City government. If you become involved in politics as a City Director, or staff member, you’re going to lose. Let me cover three critical aspects of your role in City administration.

Municipal Employees Lack Status

What do I mean by municipal employees lacking status? It means that you’re not elected by the community. Your job is to perform your “administrative” job to the best of your ability, not to act like an elected official. As municipal employees, we report to City administrators and have a responsibility to follow their direction. You may report to a City Manager, General Manager, City Director, Chief Administrative Officer or another supervisor. Keep in mind that there’s a hierarchy and you’re obligated to follow it.

You could have impressive academic credentials and great experience. It doesn’t matter. When it comes to the decisions of elected officials, you have no standing and none of your degrees and credentials mean anything. The people who were elected ultimately have the say, and we have to respect that. We’re only the expert advisors that make proposals and recommendations, but we haven’t been elected by the citizens to make decisions. That’s the purview of the Mayor and City Council or other Governing Body members.

It’s important that you respect the office and the role of the individuals in those positions. You may not have personal respect for a Council member with bad personal behavior, but that’s not the point. Democracy dictates that you need to give elected officials their due and do your utmost meet the obligations of your position to support them. Speaking badly of an elected official is never appropriate. Furthermore, don’t take sides. Maybe you have a personal opinion that lines up with several of the Council members, even so act professionally and keep it to yourself.

Let’s clarify something about your position responsibilities. Doing your job well requires, of course, performing all the duties in your job description. Having said that, if you want to make positive change in your organization, at times you have to be willing to stick your neck out. This could involve bringing information forward to your supervisor that may not be what the elected officials want to hear. Presenting unpopular analysis or data to City Council can sometimes come with risk to your career ─ but, that’s professional risk, not political risk.

Political Integrity is Required

Have you heard of the politics-administration dichotomy? Basically, it’s a theory that constructs the boundaries of public administration and asserts the normative relationship between elected officials and administrators in a democratic society. It was intended to detach partisan politics and patronage from sound public management. This presumption has been around for a long time. In fact, President Woodrow Wilson talked about it 100+ years ago! It’s more than a best practice when it comes to professional management of municipal organizations.

Although we all recognize that when we work for political organizations in local government, we CANNOT as municipal employees get into ‘mud wrestling’ fights with elected officials. I liken this to entering the gorilla cage when you’re visiting the zoo. It’s a ‘no-win’ situation.

So, you need to follow some rules of conduct as a municipal employee or public administrator. We work for political organizations and elected officials have a lot more latitude than us in what they can do because they’ve been democratically elected. It’s not uncommon to witness political meanness among the ranks of City Councils ─ it exists everywhere. Officials want to demonstrate to their constituents that they’re doing what they elected to do; therefore, they might behave in various ways to meet their objectives. Not all of it will be civil!

Despite what you observe, and may take exception to, you need to have political integrity. If you compromise this and start taking sides, then you’re no longer a municipal employee. To safeguard the legitimacy of your municipal organization, you have to maintain this integrity. You cannot depend on elected officials in the same way that you trust municipal employees. This has nothing to do with the trustworthiness of City Council people. It simply means that your role is not to develop a trusting relationship with individual elected officials.

Remember that you work with the entire City Council so you must show them all the same level of support when you fulfill the duties of your position. Here’s an example. When one Council members makes a request of the City Clerk for information, does the clerk just give the information to the Council member requesting it? No, they provide the information to the Mayor and all Council members at the same time. Be mindful that you have to be impartial and act with fairness to all elected officials.

Political integrity doesn’t mean that you can’t bring up issues that you see. In fact, doing so shows your integrity. Just make sure that you follow the chain of command. Any time you jump the chain of command, you’re risking your career. Definitely never go over the head of the City Manager or the General Manager and go straight to the elected officials. Nevertheless, be aware that if you think something is worthy of you acting as a whistleblower, you have that right as an American citizen. If we see something wrong, we can say something about it. But you better be dang sure of what you’re doing!
In my 30 years experience in local government, I never saw anything that was worthy of being a whistleblower. My issues were more related to good policy, bad policy, good financial decisions, bad financial decisions. In the end, democracy is what elected officials do and why they do it. That is their prerogative as elected, not mine as a public administrator.

Being Politically Savvy is Important

Municipal employees that that are able to succeed in their career and make positive change for their organizations will be “politically savvy” and NOT “political”. They make it a point to know who the players are. They stay tuned to what’s going on in their organization. They make a concerted effort to make themselves informed and keep themselves informed. And the more savvy you are politically, the better your chance of being able to move up in the organization. Learn how your particular City government functions. I know many organizations, for instance, where the Mayor or Council thinks they’re the City Manager, or Finance Director, or Community Development Director, etc. Do you work with a Council-Manager or a Strong Mayor form of government? Study how the internal organization operates among the different departments.

As mentioned previously, there will be situations, during your public service career, where you need to speak up. My advice on this is that you must be very wise and very careful in how you speak up. Make sure that you have your facts straight and have the proof or data in hand to support what you’re saying. Be prepared for any questions you might be asked and be ready to gather more intel, if asked. You can, and should, use your political savviness along with your professional training, to improve not only the efficiency and management of your organization, but the delivery of municipal services to improve the quality of life of your community.

Work within the channels of authority by bringing any concerns you have, or ideas to enhance what your department is doing, to your immediate supervisor. Develop your skillset to present forward-thinking thoughtful ideas in a helpful manner. Over time, you’ll become known for being politically savvy and that will definitely help your career if you’re interested in applying for positions of greater responsibility.

Think also about why you’re in public administration and what your professional responsibility is. What made you choose this career path and what do you like about it? The community and stakeholders of the organization are counting on you to do your job, so be determined to give it your best. Be the best Finance Director, the best Police Chief or the best City Manager that you can. Being politically savvy in all your interactions is a way that you can better serve your municipality in whatever position of leadership that you occupy.

People are elected an unelected all the time so the make-up of your City council is going to change frequently. You’re going to deal with a lot of officials over the course of your working life. Keep in mind that elected officials, including the Mayor, may stray from their roles and get into your business from time to time. If you’re pleasant, persuasive when you need to be and do your job well, you’ll garner respect from council members as well as your municipal staff colleagues. Try to see positive benefit and the strength of character you’re gaining that can only assist your career as you move on.

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