Full disclosure; I served on the Laurel City Council from November of 2002 until March of 2004. I was only a one term wonder, but I was honored to have the opportunity. Along the way, I learned a few secrets about being a council member.
The first dirty little secret is TIME. No matter how much a council member wants to do or even promises to do if elected, they only have so much time to do things. The life of a council member is driven by their personal clock.
The second dirty little secret is CONTROL. Laurel City government is responsible for a specific set of services. No matter what a council member may say they want to do to fix, start or change things around our town, they can only directly impact city services.
There is another aspect of control that I had to learn the hard way as a council member. That is there are two branches of city government, legislative and executive.
Council members do not do.
They cannot, and in my opinion, should never try to implement or manage. This is best left to the executive. A city councilman has one role, to vote. They write law and vote it into existence. But they cannot control anything directly.
Back to the secret of time. The council is a part time job. Most members have full time jobs, families and hobbies. Everyone is different, but I found that my part-time council work fell into four categories; representational, legislative, constituent care and new initiatives.
Representational tasks included all the dinners, club meetings and even funerals that a conscientious member is obligated to attend. For the most part, they were fun and interesting. While not fun, even the funerals and hospital calls were satisfying for me. Most people appreciated having someone representing the city at their loved one's funeral or to stop in to see them for a moment at the hospital. Of course my favorite events were the many celebrations of our great organizations around town. Award banquets and board meetings were always worthwhile and fun.
Legislative work was my most time consuming task. It included authorizing, appropriating and coordinating.
Authorizing purchases, reviewing plans, and writing/researching ordinances took up a significant amount of time. Reviewing the recommendations of our city's very capable staff often felt silly to me. City employees are the real professionals. I rarely felt qualified to question their work. But in our two-branch form of municipal government, oversight is every member's duty. So you pick up all the reports, memos and drawings and spend a few late nights every week trying to wade through them all.
Working with citizen groups was another pleasant duty for me. Every council member is assigned as a member to a few of the dozen or so standing and ad hoc citizen advisory committees or commissions.
Of course the most important job of any council member is found in the appropriations process. I read once that a budget is the only honest statement of strategy. No matter what you say, it is how you spend your money that defines your true priorities.
Laurel's operating budget will creep over $18 million dollars this coming year. Creating the budget is a massive and time consuming job for every member. I love spreadsheets. I love wallowing in data of any sort and learning about the budget process and digging around in it were the best part of being a council member for me.
Constituent care did not take up too much of my time. Not that I avoided it. But I simply did not get too many calls. Maybe it was because I was relatively new and unknown. Or maybe it was because the Mayor was running things so well, that nobody had any complaints. I can honestly say I had less than 50 constituent calls during my 2 years as a member.
After a week of meetings, dinners, home reading, and maybe a few calls and emails to make, there is precious little time or energy left for new initiatives. But almost every council candidate runs on a platform of new ideas. Sweeping changes that are intended to fix all the city's current woes.
I found that the best I could muster for new initiatives was a couple of modest ideas. It took all of my energy and spare time over two years to champion them through the process and into law.
Each of Laurel's city council seats will be contested in this upcoming election. The last time we had all five seats up for grabs was in 1996. I applaud everyone that has decided to run. It takes courage and confidence to run for any elected office. I wish them all much success.
I hope you remember to ask them about their priorities when you hear their great ideas. Make sure they will have time to do all they suggest. Also make sure that their good idea is within the city's span of control. Then please vote on Monday March 20th.
Beware of secrets.
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Thanks for reading and please stay tuned.