Civics Lessons

I have served many years as a City Councilmember of our small town of Greenwood Village, a suburb of Denver. Along the way, I have learned a few lessons about municipal government.

Lessons That I’ve Learned as a City Councilmember

A Councilmember should treat everyone with respect because everyone deserves it, even lawbreakers, gadflies and other elected officials.

Keep an open mind and be willing to change. Don’t prejudge things. Listen carefully to the concerns of people with differing viewpoints. Let other Councilmembers help you make a decision and help other Councilmembers make their decision. Collaboration is very powerful.

Disagreement and debate is positive and expected. Reasonable people can look at the same set of facts and reach a different conclusion. An effective Council is composed of members who are able to agree to disagree and Councilmembers should not take things personally or make things personal.

Trust in government, at all levels, is low. This makes trust in people even more important.

A Councilmember should own a roll of red tape and a pair of scissors. From time to time, a Councilmember should practice using the scissors.

Don’t stick the city’s nose in business that does not affect the city.

The Mayor is the presiding officer and a Councilmember should agree to be led by the Mayor on procedural matters. A good Mayor is like a traffic cop who promotes a free flow of debate while preventing collisions and traffic jams at the intersection.

The City Council establishes policy and direction. The city staff carries out the policy and direction. A Councilmember should work to provide the tools and resources the staff needs to do their job. After that, a Councilmember should not interfere.

Councilmembers should keep things in perspective and maintain a sense of humor. We honor our small role when we do what’s right and help make our community a better place. We should aspire to make a lasting difference in people’s lives but the reality is that many of the things we do are inconsequential. The importance of a Councilmember should not be inflated. I am simply a resident who was selected by my neighbors to look out for our collective best interest. I am not smarter than my neighbors

The city staff knows more about city government than I do. I already have a full time job and this is a second, night-time job for me. It’s a full time job for them. I am a citizen solider and they are career professionals. Make your own independent decisions but take advantage of their knowledge when doing so.

Well run cities focus on customer service, just like well run companies. Since cities are monopolies, it’s surprising when they don’t act like one.

Measuring Outcomes is more enlightened than measuring Outputs.

Don’t build walls when you need to build bridges. However, some people don’t want bridges, they want walls. Don’t try to impose your values on other people and don’t try connecting to people who don’t want to connect.

Return calls and reply to emails and letters, especially from people who think you’re an idiot.

Listen more and talk less. When you do talk, ask more questions and make fewer statements.

Be clear and concise when talking.

Don’t interrupt when someone else has the floor. Let them speak their mind.

Be consistent.

Be prepared by reading the packet of material before the Council meeting.

Use good judgment when making decisions and do what you think is right, not what is politically easy. Don’t let a crowd with pitch forks sway good judgment and never consider if a decision would cost votes or gain votes in an election. It is far better to lose an election than to lose one’s principles. You must do what you think is right.

An offer to trade a vote is certainly unethical and I believe illegal. Such an offer is a quid pro quo, no different than a bribe.

Take a long-term view of things and ask yourself if people will approve of a decision many years after you’re dead. What is the impact of a decision made today, 50 years from now?

The purpose of government is to protect people’s rights and sometimes two people will have competing rights. Before imposing restrictions, a Councilmember should ask the question, “What’s the harm?”

The city should promote free enterprise and fair competition. The marketplace should pick winners and losers, not government. A city should not be involved in taxpayer-funded corporate welfare or crony capitalism.

Ask yourself: “Who is the city’s primary customer?” and “What’s the difference between a customer and a shareholder?” (Click Here for my answer.)

Transparency and openness of government is good. Councilmembers should support and defend open records laws and oppose any attempt otherwise. The People, not elected officials, own the government.

Remember that the collective wisdom of the Council is far better than any one Councilmember. This is especially important to remember when you’re on the short end of a 7-1 Council vote. After a decision is made, a Councilmember on the short end of a vote should accept the decision and move on.

Elected officials should eat humble pie every now and then.

A Councilmember should enjoy the job and should contribute to the enjoyment by other Councilmembers. If a Councilmember is ever in a situation where they are not enjoying the job, that may be a signal that they are not a good fit for the job.

I am serving to benefit my neighbors and no one is serving to benefit me.

The voters are always right. Be proud of the process if you are elected and equally as proud if you are not.