Seven Attributes of Good Local Government Leadership

By: Andrew McRoberts, Editor. This was posted Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

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As a long-time local government attorney, I have had the opportunity to study local government officials a lot.  Over the years, I have sat on the dais or in the meeting room or in a conference room and examined the traits of elected and appointed local government officials that help and those that hurt.  In this post, I’ll share seven that really help.

First attribute:  Be willing to listen.

Leaders do not lead in a vacuum.  They lead people.  When you stop listening, you stop learning.  Presumably you lead people you hope will help your local government or governing body or planning commission or other local public body succeed.  They may (and often do) have something to say.  So start listening.  And keep listening.  Listening means you are learning.

Listening also means that you are giving people the courtesy they deserve.  Not listening is the converse.  No courtesy.  You make opponents.  And in local government, you don’t need any more opponents.

I have observed over the years that many would-be opponents can be made happy, or least not as angry, if the process is fair and they were heard.  While they still may not like the result of the process, if the process is fair, and the people heard and their views considered, far fewer are willing to march down to the city hall or administration building carrying pitchforks and fiery brands.

Many years ago, I recall a developer who arrived in the community and decided he was going to jam a project through, ignored requests to meet with the neighborhood, and generally made himself a nuisance.  Although the project had significant merit, not shockingly, the zoning was denied.  Another developer picked up the project, but took a proactive approach, meeting with the neighbors and listening to their concerns. With relatively small changes from the prior proposal, the zoning for this project was approved.  Although the small changes in the project made a difference, in my view the biggest change was the ability of the developer to listen to the public.

I have seen local government officials try the same tactics.  Which tactic do you think the public appreciated and thought highly of?

Second attribute:  Do your homework.

The main part of that word?  Work!  The most effective members of the governing body or planning commission are prepared and do the best job for those they represent or assist.  They reflect well on local government.  They help the body reach the best or proper result.

Preparation is the key to success in court, and it is key to success for your constituents and the citizens of your locality in what you do.  Read the materials.  Ask good questions, in advance whenever possible, go see the sites involved, meet with the people and think about how to address the issues. Go get trained by VACO, VML, and Virginia Tech’s Land Use Education Program (LUEP).  Seek advice from your professional staff and your legal counsel.  Often.

Third attribute:  Be nice.

This is perhaps a version of the biblical standard… the golden rule… do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

But it makes sense in a local government just as much as any other setting.  Nice people tend to do favors for other people, and then get favors in return. A local public body needs to find its own level, or compromise among its members (see Attribute # 5).  Niceness helps this happen.  Nice people tend to get others to lower their wall of opposition and public bodies to reach agreement more easily.

In the courtroom, I have seen that the nice attorneys tend to get judges on their side more readily.  Over the years, I’ve gotten nicer (I hope) and I am working to get even nicer.

In the political world, I have seen nice supervisors and council members more readily get their views adopted, and get the public on their side.  Those that violate this, are rude to other members of body, to the public or to staff, get the reverse reaction… people get angry at them, are unwilling to agree with them, and stand more firmly against their views.  Don’t be that way.  Be nice.

Fourth attribute:  Stand for something.

When people lead effectively, they stand for something, for principles, for things people can believe in and get behind.

In the courtroom, I try to make it clear that while I am here for the local government, I also stand for the public policy or legislative decision made by the people chosen by the citizens, and if money is involved (i.e. tax assessment cases), that I am there to defend the citizens’ money.

In the political world, local leaders need to stand for something.  It should be easy.  Things like the comprehensive plan, like better quality of life in the locality, for better growth plans, better quality development… something positive.  Reflect those things in your plans and policies and decision-making.

I have found that when local leaders do not stand for something, they tend to drift from one application or matter to another, from putting out one fire to another.  They are often more likely to trade the public good for the viewpoint of the moment.  At that point, who is leading the locality?  The applicants, or the elected and appointed officials?

Fifth attribute:  Accept differences of opinion, and help your public body “find its own level.”

Believe it or not, studies have shown there are differences of opinion among people.  (Kidding!)  Experience shows this, though.  Not suprisingly, when people get appointed or elected to a public body, they still have differences of opinion.

Differences of opinion can be frustrating, and seemingly harmful to achieving your goals, to what you stand for (see Attribute # 4 above).  However, differences help the public body consider various views and debate various ideas.  Diversity of opinion is often a helpful thing to get to the best possible answer for your locality.  Sometimes the worst decisions in retrospect are the ones everyone agreed upon early and without significant investigation and debate.

You were not elected or appointed to be a dictator; you must and can only act as a body.  This means you must accept there are, and will be, differences among individuals, but the body still must make decisions.  Thus, the public body must consider the various views and come to a reasoned decision.  One long-time board of supervisors chairman called this the board “finding its level.”  In other words, the high and the low must be taken into account as the public body decides where it will land, often in the middle somewhere between the extremes.

Sixth attribute:  Address problems and move on.

Be proactive whenever possible.  Get the necessary legal and policy advice from others.  Keep the big picture.

When you cannot be proactive, and a problem emerges (as it always will from time to time), deal with it, address it, learn from it, and move on.

This attribute is far better than two other options, either not addressing the problem, or not moving on:

i.      Sweeping the problem under the rug.  This never works, really, as there are no secrets in local government.  Moreover, what other worse problems are being created by sweeping the problem under the rug?  Whatever caused the problem has not been addressed, guaranteeing further problems.

ii.      Dwelling on it, thereby pouring more gasoline on the fire.  This is, perhaps, worse for the locality than sweeping a problem under the rug!  This can sometimes be done for political reasons, or to punish those responsible.  But think about the damage you are doing, not just to your opponents or those to “blame” for the problem, but also to your locality and to your citizens.  How many negative headlines are your citizens, or those who you desire to do business in your locality, expected to read before they lose confidence in your local government?

Confidence in local government comes not just by how proactive the locality is, but how it deals with problems that crop up along the way.

Seventh attribute:  Be squeaky clean.

Ethics and conflicts have been in the news a lot in recent months, as the McDonnell trial has been coming and going.  In my talks on this topic in past years, I have had to convince local officials of the important of this attribute.  No longer.

Remember that the Virginia State and Local Government Conflicts of Interest Act is the floor for ethical behavior and not the ceiling.  Remember that the public’s confidence in you and your government is premised on how it views your behavior, and that often has nothing with what the conflicts act says.

To guide their behavior, some local officials use the “front page of the newspaper” rule, or what would the public think if this were published.  A good rule.  Some use the “what would your mother say” rule, imagining what their mother might think or do if she knew.

To these good rules of thumb, I will add one more… the worst political opponent rule.  All local elected and even appointed officials have people in the community that oppose their views, that wish to defeat them for re-election or re-appointment, and that oppose their voting record on one or often more matters.  I often ask clients to think of what these folks might do with information about what they are considering doing.  While perhaps more self-serving than the other rules, I say that staying above reproach serves the community as well as self.  Being squeaky clean serves you, but also serves the larger community and its citizens.

Lack of confidence in government has harmful consequences to your locality… in loss of economic development, tourism, and civic pride.  The reverse is also true, confidence in local government is important and benefits the community in many ways.  Being squeaky clean helps build confidence in government, and that is important, far beyond mere compliance with the conflicts act.

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To this list, undoubtedly many more attributes could be added.  I welcome your comments about these seven attributes, and your thoughts on any more I should add.  Feel free to use the comment box below.

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