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Local Office Holders and the Public.

I gratefully acknowledge the support of Lynchburg College for a sabbatical leave and the Charles F. Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio, for the opportunity to conduct this research as scholar in residence in 1998.

To what extent are local elected officials encouraged to be attentive to the quality of citizenship in their communities? One way to answer this question is to consider the handbooks for town and city council members that are prepared by a majority of the state municipal leagues. This article reviews what these widely used, authoritative publications advise, particularly in the matter of how city council members should encourage active citizenship.

Not many candidates for local office know much about the post they seek. Other circumstances as well give rise to the need for some kind of instruction for elected officials. The first is campaigning itself. To win, a candidate needs to be attractive, to stay "on message," and to raise money. A campaign is not the occasion for learning much of anything except how to campaign. The second circumstance is the constitutional and legal position of local government in our constitutional system. Intricate networks of state and federal constitutional provisions, statute law, court decisions, and administrative regulations surround local government. Basic instruction for newly elected officials is necessary.

The third circumstance is the necessity for most local governing bodies to work with those of adjoining jurisdictions. Intergovernmental relations are an obscure topic reserved for political discussion, but familiarity is a practical necessity for an office holder. The final circumstance is the fact of the modern bureaucratic state. Even those who campaign against "bureaucracy" must work with elaborate examples of it to provide the bridges, roads, airports, water lines, sewers, and so on that we have come to regard as necessary Elected officials need some knowledge of public administration.

One thing is clear: local politics are not rooted in natural communities that somehow take care of their own affairs by finding knowledgeable citizens who will serve a time in office and make decisions in consultation with their fellow citizens. Education and training programs are not an indulgence or an extra. Elected officials must have a practical grasp of these matters to function at all. Such knowledge is also necessary even to approach stimulating active citizenship, should that be something he or she chooses to undertake.

Since the first state municipal leagues were formed during the Progressive movement at the turn of the twentieth century they have devoted themselves to generating information about municipal government and promoting reform. Today each state has one, though because the states underwent urbanization at their own pace, formation of the leagues extended over two-thirds of the century. Their age, size, and range of functions vary widely. Some work in close conjunction with programs and institutes based at state universities. Others are freestanding. Some have a limited set of clearly defined services offered to their municipal members. Others have a broad commitment to educating the members and the public.

Although these leagues are by no means the only organizations that serve these functions, they are the principal ones. For the most part, state governments do not feel compelled to improve the quality of local government through education. Perhaps state legislators find themselves bedeviled by local government from time to time and see no need to make local government more capable of harassing them. One exception to this is Georgia, which requires newly elected local officials to take a university-based training course in local government. State associations of local government managers have been forming in recent years, but they do not presume to advise elected officials.

In this article, we look at the handbooks prepared by a majority of the state leagues to get a preliminary sense of the structure of advice offered to elected officials. Of course, what follows is not a comprehensive analysis of all training and education programs carried on by the leagues, allied state university institutes, or consultants. No judgment is offered on whether any are better than others. The purpose here is simply to review them.

Letters were sent to the municipal leagues of all fifty states, requesting a copy of the current "handbook" for elected local officials. Twenty-eight leagues sent materials (or declared they were able to supply some readily). The Web sites of the twenty-nine leagues that have them were reviewed as well.

Three types of handbook were identified: directories, legal handbooks, and general handbooks. Those that fit into the general category were further divided into three groups: those that contained information on the structure of government, those that also included material on conduct in office, and those that went on to address elected officials' relations with the public.

The handbooks classified here as general cover a variety of topics in numerable ways.

The Structure of General Advice on Holding Office

Thirteen state leagues contributed handbooks (or introductory booklets that were part of a larger series of publications) that offer general treatments of municipal government. One identified itself as a "basic guide," another as "a valuable reference tool," another as "a layman's guide to many subject areas." Similar statements appeared in most of them, sometimes noting the hope that newly elected officials would find the handbook helpful in learning their new jobs. They range in size from a 14-page bulletin entitled "Handbook" to a loose-leaf binder of 235 pages. The most comprehensive one is the League of Minnesota Cities' 700-hundred-page manual, for which members are charged $270; a revised edition was in preparation at the time of this writing.

Instruction on the Organization of Municipal Government

All of the publications in this category offer information on the organization of municipal government in the state. Some are brief summary accounts; others are extensive and detailed. In a state where there is great variety in municipal government, there is obviously more to explain (for example, Texas has separate books for home-rule and general-law cities). These structural descriptions are impersonal in tone and cover some of the same ground as the handbooks that are exclusively legal in orientation. They may deal with granting of charters, relevant state constitutional provisions, annexation, permitted forms of government, taxes and fees that can be charged, the effect of state legislation in general or in particular, compensation, and so on. This material makes fairly demanding reading. For the elected official who is not aware of these matters in sufficient detail to understand his or her job, it is necessary reading.

The decision of the general handbook authors not to restrict themselves to legal matters leads them to explain things more fully. In a section on local taxing power, Virginia thought it helpful to present data on how much revenue is generated by each tax, data on what proportion the tax constitutes of municipal revenue statewide, and text on the historical background of the tax. Similar information in other handbooks includes time lines for budget adoption, deadlines required by state law and suggestions about which municipal services might be paid for by service charges rather than taxes. Revenue for capital expenses comes from bond issues. Some of the most important rules governing these acts of borrowing are imposed not by law but by the bond market. As the League of Oregon Cities advised, "Involving financial advisors and bond counsel early in the process can save the city money in the long run." This statement moves consideration of bond issues from simple description to another level: it gives prudent advice to councilors on how to make decisions in office.

Conduct in Office

In political literature, advice to rulers is an old tradition. At its best, it offers a view of the public good that a well-advised ruler could achieve, to his and his subjects' benefit. The handbooks favoring verbs in the second person do so to try to explain the law fully Public meetings, relations among council members, relations between council member and employed staff, dealing with news media, and matters of ethics are subjects that the law addresses and that also require personal explanation and reminders. For example, the Kansas handbook has a chapter titled "Effective Meetings"; it starts with an outline of the state law on meetings and then goes on to note where meeting procedures are left to the individual council's discretion. It offers a sample order of business and other advice. Even deportment becomes part of the structure of advice, with this recommendation on decorum: "Preserving decorum usually means that the mayor requires every member to address the chair and wait until he or she is recogn ized before proceeding. This is to prevent general conversation and to keep order. A member wishing to have the floor should address the chair by saying 'Mayor' and wait to be recognized before speaking further."

This normative stance shows up in other places. In discussing relations with other council members, New Mexico's frankly didactic handbook offered this: "To work together as a team, it is absolutely essential that your dealings with the other governing body members be open and honest. In discussing an issue you must present your opinion and philosophy as clearly as possible. You must also be willing, although sometimes it will take a great deal of effort, to listen to the other's point of view."

Similarly, treatment of councilors' relations with city staff varies from a summary of state laws on employee relations to the Oregon manual's comprehensive observations on current thinking about public personnel administration: "Modern theory stresses 'positive personnel administration,' and suggests that personnel policies and programs should not only ensure fairness and equity in public employment. They should also seek to enhance career development opportunities and job satisfaction through employee training, employee benefit programs and participative management strategies."

The personal aspect of public personnel administration has always been part of discussing the relationship between city managers and their councils. One manual underscores the need to keep that relationship a professional one: "The problem that causes managers more headaches than any other is council members who forget, or don't understand, that their role is to develop policy-- rather than to become involved in administration. Such activity can erode the manager's authority with staff members and often leads to morale and productivity problems within the organization.... Council members' interference in this process inevitably leads to inefficiency and disenchantment on all fronts."

The Virginia handbook goes so far as to advise council members on the mind-set they should maintain: "Council members who don't think and act as part of a team, who are difficult to get along with, often become ineffective." Thus, advising about personnel and internal governing-body matters leads to consideration of the subjective sense of these activities. An institution is not a mechanism or a thing; it is people arranged in specific relationships that have meaning for those involved. Description of relationships tends to move to a normative stance, conveying what one ought to do.

How to conduct public meetings is a topic in all the general handbooks. Here the advice must touch on citizens and their relation to government. Most elected officials make their final decisions at public meetings and must also officiate at public hearings, and it is understood that this can be a trying experience. The recommendations on how an elected official should establish a relationship with the public include these:

Have a published agenda.

Have a knowledgeable chairperson.

Maintain decorum.

Make sure presentations are audible and visible.

Stick to rules and time limits.

Allow for public participation.

Make the council's decision-making role clear.

Failure to control the meeting should be strenuously avoided: "In an endeavor to be responsive to citizens attending a public meeting, local officials are often unduly influenced when emotions are extreme. Officials should remain solidly in control of the meeting and understand that a public meeting or hearing is conducted for the purpose of listening to ideas and dispensing information. A public meeting is not held for the purpose of taking a 'straw vote.' An opinion survey of a group that has shown up for a hearing very rarely represents an honest sampling of the entire community."

Many of the handbooks treat media relations as well. Typical advice includes how to present oneself in public. During an interview or when on camera at a meeting, one should "sit forward to show authority and interest." Allied suggestions include how to be perceived by the public as being straightforward and honest: "Don't guess or speculate, don't ... repeat ... inaccurate information." Still other advice touches the area where practice and ethics merge: "Don't ever lie."

This is all sound material, but it raises another question about giving advice. When a prescriptive statement contains recommendations for shaping the relationship between government and the public, it necessarily implies a philosophy of governance. The Arizona handbook directly advises councilors that they should have a philosophy of government: "It is vital to have a basic guide or set of principles of personal and public beliefs about the nature and function of government at all levels." This thought is elaborated, but no particular philosophy is endorsed. There is a reminder that it should be a matter of basic principles, not something "detailed to the point where it would only be useful to a political scientist." Local government is not just a matter of "nuts and bolts."

Looking for Citizenship

If the practice of citizenship is one of the most important concerns we face, then how local councilors are advised to treat citizens is a major matter. People learn about government from their contact with it. "Civics" does not get much attention in high school or college curricula. Television seems invariably to limit a statement by an official to a sound bite of less than ten seconds. Newspaper readership is in decline. Therefore, whether they want to or not, and whether they like it or not, every time officials have contact with the public, they are giving the people they contact their most enduring lesson in citizenship.

The authors of the handbooks understand that they are not in the business of philosophizing. They all recognize that the material they present must be of practical use to their members. All of the handbooks demonstrate serious preparation. They contain reminders that an elected official is answerable to the public, that the public is to be treated courteously, and that public involvement in local government is important. But most are silent after that. There is an underlying divergence in what the basic relationship between citizen and government is. The most common mention of the citizen is in connection with public meetings and hearings. Since such meetings can involve strong feelings and excited people, they can get out of control. This does not happen frequently, but when it does, it is memorable and highlights the necessity for things to go according to form. It is not currently a compliment to be considered "controlling," but governing bodies must remain in control of their own activities; if not, they cease to govern. One perspective on the relationship between citizen and government emphasizes control, as the next section relates.

Government as Control

The felt need to keep control shows up most strongly in passages on meetings (for instance, "How to Hold Effective Meetings") and on media relations. The suggestions are prudent and not controversial. Councilors must do their homework, make a good appearance, respond directly to questions if they are solicited, avoid error and deception, and not be bullied by either reporters or pressure groups. All groups and individuals (including the outspoken, who may be irritating to councilors) should be treated fairly. However, citizen groups should not be allowed to dominate meetings or determine decisions. Ways to keep control of the meeting include working from a published agenda, placing a time limit on speakers, and following parliamentary procedure.

The handbooks recognize that control is not to be sought for its own sake. Control over the operations of city government is necessary for orderly provision of city services. Citizens are consumers of services that should be provided predictably and efficiently. But if the only view of citizens is that they are consumers who may get out of control, more remains to be said. Good order is necessary, but it does not provide a sufficient definition of citizenship.

Inclusive Government

Many of the handbooks go beyond treating citizens as consumers and develop recommendations on how citizens can participate in making governmental decisions. Ethnic and gender inclusiveness is an established norm, but inclusiveness can also be understood as how to involve more citizens in the work of the community. Suggestions on how to get citizens "more involved" vary from producing better turnout at a traditional public meeting to broader notions, such as citizen engagement in community-based goal setting and planning programs. The engagement category includes such activities as strategic planning, community visioning, and other "futuring" projects.

Recommendations also vary in the intensity of whatever the involvement is, ranging from the passive and anonymous role assigned to citizens when an opinion poll is taken to direct, hands-on participation in a tangible project such as recruiting people to maintain trees on public property. The handbooks have recommendations about citizen participation in the operation of government, through appointment to both statutorily required bodies (for example, planning commissions) and ad hoc advisory boards created as called for by the occasion. Whether the municipality should take on itself the responsibility for outright sponsorship of a citizens' group is an open question: "There is considerable disagreement about whether it is appropriate for a city to recognize formally and sponsor these associations. Those who favor city sponsorship cite increased citizen participation, more realistic neighborhood planning, better public relations, and a more knowledgeable citizenry. Others argue that neighborhood groups tend t o be parochial units that contribute to political factioning and a lack of cooperation with city hall or other community institutions, and that council leadership can be diluted."

The Florida league has prepared formal lesson materials for teaching citizens how to participate in government, including instructions on how to lobby local government, with lists of do's and don'ts for making a presentation at a public meeting and for talking with councilors in private. The same curriculum also includes a lesson plan on running for local office. Another handbook that emphasizes participation notes that citizen participation makes government more of a "two-way" street.

Such passages describe participation in existing municipal structures, with all of the limits, regulations, and administrative procedures that go with it. The activity must conform to the relevant laws, regulations, and policies of the jurisdiction. The Oregon manual encourages volunteerism, but it also notes that there are "pitfalls." It goes on to offer guidelines for city government use of volunteers:

Carefully recruit and select volunteers.

Clearly define volunteers' functions and provide the necessary training and orientation.

Assign staff to check with volunteers periodically to answer questions and express appreciation for their efforts.

Set time limits and establish work schedules... when appropriate.

Check with the city attorney regarding possible liability....

Check with the personnel officer regarding fringe costs and other liabilities.

Such cautionary reminders demonstrate that there are practical lessons to be learned from using volunteers in the institutional environment of local government. They also underscore the difficulty of escaping the consumer model of citizenship, where the government's leading responsibility is to provide services to citizen-consumers. Valuable as they are, such programs do not address the larger question of bridging the psychological gap between the government and the citizen. If a citizen sees a volunteer program as merely a way for the jurisdiction to get cheap labor, this can be counterproductive. Recognizing such limits and pitfalls, most of the handbooks also contain text suggesting that there is something more to the relationship between citizen and government than voter or consumer on the one hand and official or service provider on the other.

The Continuum from Leadership to Citizenship

This "something more" is in no way as developed as other topics in the manuals. The number of pages devoted to it is small in comparison. It is not clearly defined and does not lend itself to discussion in the technical language that is often the preferred mode of expression in these publications. Sometimes it gets mentioned in a rhetorical tone that borders on yearning.

The word most frequently used to label this something more is Leadership. The Iowa handbook suggests that leadership is a combination of knowledge, dedication to good government, and "developing a vision and some goals for the future." With a seeming sense of apprehension about the future, it closes by saying: "Combined with teamwork and careful planning, leadership from you and other city officials will help your city survive into the 21st century" Another notes cryptically: "Law does not prescribe that you be a community leader; however, as an elected official you are one.... Be prepared." Another suggests that the ultimate goal of leadership is to "accomplish something worthwhile" for the community. And scattered through others are associations of "leadership" with "success" in office.

This progression of concerns in the general category signals a departure from providing information in the form of a directory and presenting legal advice in a largely technical form. The progression in the general handbooks from institutional description to subjective concerns about leadership and success points to the emergence of a new sense of governance. Whatever its genesis, this sensibility is not part of the technocratic tradition of American local government in the twentieth century. It does seem to imply a need for elected officials to foster a set of shared values about local government if it is to function. Clearly, how those involved in local government understand it is beginning to change.

In the handbooks that treat it, preparation for leadership takes two forms. The first is closer to the technocratic tradition and repeats the need for elected officials to be knowledgeable. One essay repeats the word education to describe what a newly elected official must undergo to become a leader: "Local government leaders need a far-reaching 'education' in the broadest sense." Again: "An 'educated' newly elected or appointed official has just begun his or her education upon election or appointment." Another puts it in terms of possible political rivalry: "Council members who do their homework generally have an advantage over those who don't." "Seek help" is the advice on information gathering in another. One league that has a carefully worked out leadership-training program emphasizes the information component of leadership. The subjects taught include public safety and public works, economic development, finance, thinking about the future, and leadership skills (media relations, conflict management, and building consensus). In this view, the leader is one who knows. This knowledge is to be put to work on behalf of the community.

But leadership is an ambiguous thing that has to do with relationship and understanding that is not technical. There is a second approach to leadership that is less directly technocratic. In this view, the appeal is not to material interest but to something more elusive. Scattered through the handbooks are a number of assertions that attribute a moral quality to leadership, seeing leadership not just as technical competence in independent decision making but as cultivation of a value-laden, reciprocal relationship between citizen and elected official. There are a large number of brief references to the elected official's duties and responsibilities to the entire public. A typical exhortation urges the elected official to be wary of interest group politics.

Raising an elected official's obligation to those represented opens a host of issues that cannot be easily resolved. There are decidedly different ways of approaching the question. One approach, possibly familiar, is to explore it in terms of personal ethics. The Iowa handbook puts this in down-to-earth benchmarks that might serve as such for a personal code of conduct. For example, in thinking about some action, one could ask oneself how it would look if it were reported in the newspaper. Another suggested test is to ask: "What would my mother think of this?" A way to approach the matter is, then, to work for virtuous citizens and officials. This does assume that if citizen and official alike are virtuous, then the community will take care of itself. Although this fits comfortably with a large portion of American culture, it is not the only way the matter can be viewed.

Personal rectitude is important, but it may not be everything that must be taken into account. If morals are solely a matter of personal virtue, there is no room to consider what the nature of the moral bond between official and constituent might be. Similarly, there is no consideration of how the community itself might be thought of in moral terms. The one publication that does take these questions into account is the treatment of leadership in the California League of Cities' Mayors and Council Members Leadership Guide. This booklet is designed for use at training meetings; it begins with a self-quiz on the reader's perception of how municipal responsibilities should be exercised. It then goes on to present material on problem solving (limited budgets, greater demands on local government, and community conflict) and conducting "effective meetings" that resembles the text in other manuals.

But it also contains several pages that are noteworthy in their treatment of how to consider the moral dimension of public office. In these pages, two ways of seeing it are explored. The author refers to them as "legalistic ethics" on the one hand and "service-based ethics" on the other. The possibility that public office holds moral dilemmas that require reflection on the part of the elected official is a far different approach to the psychology of office holding from the technocratic approach that dominates the literature on local government practice. This may also involve decisions about what public ethics are, possibly in tension with the legalistic understanding that seems to underlie the scattered references to ethics in the other handbooks. In this view, service-based ethics are distinctively those that address the relationship between elected official and citizen. This shifts questions about ethics from the person of the official to the effect the elected leader has on those whom he or she leads. The service-based ethical understanding of the moral denizen of leadership can lead to consideration of how well an elected official encourages constituents to develop their capacity for citizenship. Although the idea is not fully developed, it is clear that the citizen should be treated as an active part of the community and the officials must act to earn his or her trust: "Since ethical leadership is really about influence--not power--trust is central. To merit the public trust, public officials must be morally good leaders and ethical human beings who avoid cynical manipulation, whose decisions are just and who do not seek to inflict damage upon their opponents or, for that matter, anyone."

A community of mutual respect is one where action is mutual as well. But although this publication approaches acknowledgment that active citizenship is a necessary part of a good community, it does not go any further.


What light does this review shed on prospects for community building, especially as it may relate to the position of the elected official? It demonstrates that there is no necessary correlation between the national call for revitalization of community life and active citizenship and the expectations about office holding that are presented to an elected official. Perhaps the formulation of the issue by the National League of Cities--that it is time to look for "new ways" to involve the public--is closest to the mark. There is no standard repertoire of techniques to apply in a technological spirit; there is little practical instruction available. The handbooks show a tentative development in the direction of recognizing such a need and building an understanding of it.

Expressed concern with citizen participation, unease over public distrust of government, concern that elected officials be better informed, and widespread use of brief bits of wisdom literature demonstrate an interest in moving beyond technical or specialist approaches. For local government specialists, this may be a signal that it is time to keep track of efforts made by practitioners who are exploring and experimenting with new ways to foster civic engagement. This should not be done with a sense that something new is at hand to be readily applied (more powerful software, or improved paving material). It is a matter of deep human complexity, not technology It is not something to be undertaken alone, it requires a reaching out that can only be done by all involved: citizens, elected officials, and public servants.

Joseph F. Freeman is a professor of political science at Lynchburg College.
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Title Annotation:attitudes toward ctizen participation
Author:Freeman, Joseph F.
Publication:National Civic Review
Date:Dec 22, 2000
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