Tuesday, May 14th, 2019

ZRFM Releases 2019 Edition of Handbook for Newly Elected Officials

ZRFM is proud to announce the publication of the 2019 Edition of Handbook for Newly Elected Officials: A Practical Guide to Local Government written by Richard G. Flood and Ruth Alderman Schlossberg of the firm and published by the Illinois Municipal League. This is the fourth edition of the book. This spring and summer, our newsletter will publish occasional excerpts from the book on topics that may be of interest both to newly elected officials and to long-standing readers. If you have any comments or questions about these excerpts or wish to receive a copy of the handbook, please email rschlossberg@zrfmlaw.com.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter Seven of the Book about Communications with Residents, Staff and Elected Officials: Dealing with a Divided Board:

Ideally, you and your colleagues on the board or council will work together in relative harmony toward a generally accepted common goal. There will, of course, be times when reasonable people will disagree, and there will likely be moments of vigorous debate when you formulate policy. However, if you recall your “Carver on Governance” lessons, you will remember that once the board votes on an issue, the winning position becomes the board’s official position. At some point, if you want to move forward and be an effective leader, you must accept the final decision. However, we acknowledge that not every board works in harmony and that divided and divisive boards happen for all sorts of reasons – sometimes because strong differences of opinion exist, sometimes because styles are different and sometimes because personalities or a previous history of conflict gets in
the way. With that in mind, here are some of our thoughts and suggestions for you to consider when board battles have become a way of life.

• Ask yourself if you are angry over a matter of principle or a matter of personality. If it is personality, then consider whether you have a duty to your constituents to make things work. Be careful not to confuse righteous indignation with possible arrogance or stubbornness.

• If you and your colleagues disagree about a few big issues, but not on all issues, try not to let this interfere with the business of governance. Consider moving those issues to a special meeting or a workshop where you can explore them in more detail. This should free up your regular meetings for conducting business and may prevent your disagreements from negatively impacting all aspects of government operations.

• Is there any possibility for compromise? Can you acknowledge your opponent’s position on some issues if they will acknowledge yours on some? Not every conflict needs to have one winner with everyone else as losers. Sometimes everyone can win on something and everyone can compromise on something less important to them.

• If your disagreement involves hiring personnel, keep those disputes in private/executive session. It is good practice, when possible, to bring new employees on with a sense of welcome and potential. If you were opposed to a specific hire, but you are clearly outnumbered, then consider when the time comes for a public vote to extend an offer or ratify a contract in open session, it would be both gracious and likely better for the future of your municipality to arrive at a unanimous vote.

• Remember that your staff does not report to each board member individually. Rather, they are tasked with carrying out the directives of the board – not just one faction. They should not have to guess what would make you happy in your individual capacity. Instead, they should be permitted to move forward with board directives. Remember the Carver model discussed earlier in this book suggesting that the board should “speak with one voice” and that “dissent is expressed during the discussion preceding a vote. Once taken, the board’s decisions may subsequently be changed, but are never to be undermined.”

• It is also useful to remember who your staff reports to. In most towns they take their directives from a manager or administrator or alternatively from the mayor or president. It is not fair or appropriate to ask each individual staff member to report directly to each elected official. Similarly, if you have a complaint or concern about the performance of a staff member, you should speak to the proper supervising authority and not take it upon yourself to give direction to your staff. If you would like to speak directly to a department head or staff about a matter of concern, it is courteous to clear this first with the manager or their supervisor to ensure that they do not feel pressured or uncomfortable being asked to report on their work to individual board members who may have objectives that differ from the board as a whole.

• For the leadership, you may want to establish a written policy regarding governance, so it can always be pointed to in instances where there is disagreement. The written policy might make it less personal.

• A workshop or visioning session may be helpful in addressing the differences you have. Certainly, a day devoted to the issues that separate you is a small sacrifice if it helps address the problem. Take advantage of the Illinois Municipal League’s self-evaluation services through an exception to the Illinois Open Meetings Act that allows the corporate authorities to meet in closed session for specified subjects. 5 ILCS 120/2(c)(16).

• If a dispute between two board members seems to be more related to personalities than to principles, then enlisting a neutral third party to conciliate may be useful to help the two arrive at some common ground. As appropriate, the third party may be a manager, another trustee or even the attorney who can help the parties see each other’s perspective.

• Consider socializing with your fellow elected officials. You may continue to disagree, but it is more difficult to be rude or hostile to someone with whom you have just had lunch.

• If you have tried all the above and your meetings continue to deteriorate, try to take the long view. Municipal elections occur every other year. Attempt to be civil and courteous, and then bring your case to the public. That is what elections are for.

Author: Richard G. FloodRuth A. Schlossberg