In my governance work I am fortunate to observe, train, and coach different types of boards, nonprofits, for-profits, associations, and federations—both governmental and educational. And while each segment has its unique attributes and it is not always fair to compare across segments, I am always taken aback at how often and how long local government elected officials hold meetings compared to other entities.
It is not unusual for councils to have two formal business meetings plus less formal workshops and multiple committee meetings each month. Often one business meeting alone consumes three to five hours or longer.
Add in the other meetings and preparatory obligations and an individual councilmember might spend 16 to 20 hours a month in meetings—besides dealing with constituent calls, participating in educational opportunities, and interacting with staff.
Multiply these figures by the number of councilmembers in your community, and even for larger local governments with significant budgets and multiple lines of business, this is an astonishing amount of monthly governance investment. And, likely, most of my elected friends would say I am underestimating the amount of time they invest in their volunteer official endeavors.
In a recent interview in preparation for a council retreat with a new client, one of the governing body members said, “Mike, I cut back my law practice by more than 50 percent so I could serve in this volunteer role.”
Contrast this with a regional or even national nonprofit with a geographically dispersed board that might meet only quarterly or semiannually. If you have a major for-profit company in your community, ask its CEO how often the board meets. In many cases, it is also quarterly, or, on occasion, monthly.
Now city managers can find a mirror and ask themselves this question: How often do I really need the elected officials in my community to meet? In other words, how much governance is good governance and how much of it is going-through-the-motions governance?
In Texas, there have been recent examples of governing bodies not being able to meet for extended periods of time when there has been a recall by the voters or action by the attorney general. In these cases of no governance at all, the city does not shut down. The 911 calls are still answered, the water continues to flow, the toilets still flush, the permits are issued, and the streets are maintained.
Bills get paid and purchases are made. In fact, without the local publicity of a recall or legal action, most folks in the community would not know or recognize that the council was not functioning because the staff and the services the residents rely on still do.
Of course, what does not get done in these extreme examples is community visioning and long-range planning. The city does not pay a price today for little or no governance; rather, it pays a huge price several years down the road.
Unfortunately, too often in the hustle and bustle of weekly governing meetings, these same issues of visioning and planning go untouched. It is much easier to spend time talking about speed limits; or crosswalk placement; or what kind of police cars to buy; or whether desktops, laptops, or iPads make more sense than to talk about the quality of life desired in 10 or 15 years and what it will take to achieve that quality.
I often travel on planes. In governing my trip I choose my destination, the cost I am willing to pay, and my arrival time. I do not attempt to fly the plane (hopefully the credentialed pilot stays in the cockpit!), or help load the luggage, or participate in designing the crew uniforms.
The governance implication is that while communities desperately need elected officials to determine the destination, the resource allocation, and the time frame, they do not need the council “helping” in the day-to-day operations.
My experience is that nearly all elected officials want to govern well. As professional local government managers, we need to do our part for good governance by putting the right issues on agendas, making sure that the long-term and policy implications are clearly articulated, and, to the extent possible, keeping the governing body’s discussion focused on the future.
My next column in October will include suggestions on how to do this!