Process and Management in Local Government

I love local politics in my town.  By that I mean that I love to stay away from local politics in my town.  But it also has the same rubbernecking attraction that the accident in the opposite lane does.  So I look and watch and I remain thankful that I have not been drawn to be elected to any office. 

In our small town, there’s eight borough council members and a mayor.  I know four of them personally and are acquainted with two more.  I don’t agree with all they say or do, but they are intelligent and competent and I am more than OK with them being in their positions.  I want to emphasize that point.  These observations are not a direct personal attack on any single person or another.  It’s one person’s look at how the body works as a whole.

The problem is when they all get together for meetings.  All of a sudden, their collective IQ plunges into nearly negative numbers and they are unable to accomplish the simplest of tasks.  I caught about the last two thirds of last nights council meeting and I found myself reflecting on how the lack of process makes things worse. 

The first admission I noted was pretty mundane.  There was a joint school board-borough council meeting a few weeks ago.  The school board committee reps showed up but the borough council reps were a no show.  The official cause was that the school board secretary had not sent out reminder emails to the council members.  Any large committee has various subcommittees and your membership on these subcommittees is not always voluntary or enjoyed.  You can feel like you’re pulled in multiple directions.  Add in the kids, the house, the spouse, the daytime (i.e. my paycheck!) job, and it gets daunting.  The project manager in me knows that reminder emails are an effective tool, but it’s still the responsibility of all of the parties to maintain their own schedule.  Admitting that the school board secretary runs the borough council reminder system suggests that it’s time for the borough to upgrade to Outlook 2007.  At least.

The second point was when the borough solicitor’s answer to two very important questions was very accurate and very unhelpful.  In the borough code, the mayor has ten days to veto ordinances passed by the council.  She vetoed a recent ordinance on day 11.  Case closed, this is a null veto.  Cue the first  “I don’t know.”  Hold on…when did the mayor get the ordinance?   “I don’t know” was the solicitor’s answer again, and that info helps me answer the null veto question.  Really?  In two hundred years of local government here, no one logs in details like this?  In a small town where in person door to door delivery of regular information packets is the standard, no one keeps track?  The recipient doesn’t have to sign a receipt?  When the details start to control the project, it’s time to step back and reassess your processes.  These two points alone leave the public shaking their heads in collective wonderment as they watch.  

As we speak, there is an ongoing investigation into our local police department.  Because it’s an evolving situation, not all of the details are known and those most closely involved don’t comment.  Saying that, it’s clear that the mayor, by PA code, the police “commissioner”, and/or the appropriate council committee(s), did not fully exercise their oversight responsibilities over a period of time.  Here’s where the trolley starts to fully come off the rails.  

Civilian elected official oversight of appointed officials and their functions is a basic responsibility of every elected body.  If the police department is not getting the attention it needs, people start to question where and how oversight is applied in other areas.  That leads to the audit process.  Periodically you need to take a look at your operation and decide if you’re meeting your own SOPs, in this case, the borough code.  Make sure to have an outside disinterested party perform the audit.  You never know what long buried axes are being ground right in front of you.  

The final point is shaping the message.  Every team member has to be reminded that THEY are the face of the group each time they interact with someone else.  The message you leave me with is typically how I will perceive the entire group.  I would challenge each group to stand back for a moment and think about how they portray themselves individually and how they are perceived as a whole.  Day by day solid performance by any group can withstand a severe blow or two, but institutionalized ineffectiveness perpetuates and solidifies the message of incompetence.

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