So often in our line of work, we are told, "whatever council wants to do, we will," or, "council will decide," and it can seem the council is a mystical being that makes choices for us. So how can we change the perception of our city council from being this entity that we're scared, intimidated or even unaware of?
I'm fairly new to the government aspect of work — only a little more than two years of full-time work after being in the private sector for 10 years. So, trying to navigate the political aspect of the job and how the city council fits in has been a learning experience. At the first city I worked for, I wanted to know my council members better and I wanted them to know me and see the programs I was running. My co-workers thought I was crazy and even said, "I hope they never know who I am and just leave me alone." I thought, “Really? I'm working hard on these programs and want support from them.” Even more so when I want to start new programs and want the budgets approved for them.
I recently changed jobs and my new role has become very involved with the city council and the mayor. Coming from the previous position where I was told, "you don't need to worry about working with the council, that's what I'm here for," to now being in meetings with them and having the mayor in my office frequently, I felt unprepared. In my short time as a full-time recreation professional, the perception has been that no one likes working with the city council — that it's a burden, it's scary, it won't matter or it won't change anything. This way of thinking should be challenged.
Every city council is different. Every individual person within that council is unique and they all work differently. I reached out to one of my current council members and the mayor and asked them, “What’s the best way for us to work together so that we succeed together?” I only felt comfortable asking this because we do work so closely. I even reached out to council members from other cities to ask what they thought. I didn’t hear back from most of who I reached out to, and that’s ok; I’m patient and persistent and I understand that they have busy schedules. This will be key in working with a city council — we don’t always get what we want when we want it, right?
Here are three directions I would recommend when working with your local city council:
1. Ask them
Find out how they’d like to work with you, which is applicable as a coordinator, manager or director. They very well may not want to work with you and would rather communicate through a manager — that's ok! Make sure you're selling your program or event to your managers and directors. How many times do we hear someone say something along the lines of, "The director/manager doesn't know what I do." Make sure they do! Sell yourself and the programs you've worked so hard on!
2. Invite them to come see your programs or facilities so they see the hard work, investment and payoff of the program
We want council members to see the good work and the benefits our work provides to the community we are serving. This can translate into more funding for more or better opportunities for growth. What's the worst that could happen? They say no? That's fine. Find out when their schedule would allow them to stop by a future program or facility so that they WANT to include future programs in the budgets.
3. Be Prepared
Now that you have invited council members to a program, be prepared for them to drop in! Make sure you have a top-notch program or facility cleaned. Once they visit, be ready for feedback or constructive criticism. Will this method win over every one of your council members? Probably not. Just be prepared to keep asking questions and keep trying to find what works best for you and your city council and know that moving jobs or cities can change that.
So, how do we work with our city council? My best answer: Engage them and find out! Ask your council, invite them to your programs or events, and be prepared to impress them and take their feedback. Try to figure out how they work and what their goals are. Most likely, their goals will broadly align with your mission.