MML#1: Officials Learn Basics of Being a Good Public Servant

MML#1: Officials Learn Basics of Being a Good Public Servant

(Crystal A. Proxmire, March 6, 2018)

Frankenmuth, MI – For Bob Slattery, former Mayor of Mt. Morris, a life of public service is “the perfect life.” And as a past President of Michigan Municipal League and an ongoing educator for elected officials, he’s been able to share his passion for local governance.  On Feb. 23 he helped inspire officials from across the state who gathered in Frankenmuth for MML’s Elected Officials Academy weekend training.

Among those in the audience were several from Oakland County, including officials from Oak Park, Pontiac, Village of Holly, Hazel Park, Madison Heights, Troy, Rochester, Rochester Hills, Walled Lake, Royal Oak and Orchard Lake.

Socrates touted two key components to the perfect life which Slattery used as the basis for his own: “You get involved with your community, and you lead a contemplative life,” he said.  Representing residents in local government is a way to do both.

Throughout the presentation Slattery reminded officials that their job is to serve people.  “Don’t be a politician, be a statesman,” he said.  “You should go in the background. It’s not about you it’s about the community.”

However, elected officials do need to be aware that they represent the community.  He quoted former Mayor of Dearborn Mike Guido who said “The Mayor is the head cheerleader of the city, and this is the most important role…Help residents feel good about where they invested their lives.”

There are many responsibilities of officials, which Slattery broke down into seven points:

  1. Act legally, act ethically
  2. Know the laws and know your role
  3. Know your authority, and it’s sources
  4. Know and observe sunshine laws (FOIA, Open Meetings Act)
  5. Use resources available to you
  6. Be the leader you were elected to be
  7. Raise the bar (for everyone)

Civility and ethics are important for both practical reasons and legal ones.  Slattery suggested that officials learn how to “disagree without being disagreeable,” to treat everybody with respect and make sure everyone is heard.  The concept of compromise is also important.  “Concensus means that something may not be my first choice, but it will work and I can live with it.”

Other sage advice: “Listen to people. Consider all viewpoints, especially those you disagree with, because you may learn something.”

He also recommended that officials never criticize each other in public.

From a legal perspective, knowing about “conflict of interest,” is a fundamental must.  PA 317 or 1968 and PA 196 of 1973 deal with conflict of interest.  PA 317 calls upon officials to recluse themselves if votes involve a personal interest. For example if someone works for a company that the city makes purchases from, that official should not vote on that contract.  PS 196 means that officials cannot accept gifts or benefit personally from votes.

Sunshine laws are also a basic component of local governance. The public has a right to access public documents and to be present at meetings. “Deliberations and discussions must be made in public,” he said.  “There are few exceptions.”  Exceptions include discussions with attorneys regarding litigation, discussions about property purchases and sales when public discussion could hinder negotiations, and discussions about personnel unless the employee wishes the discussion to be done in public.  Even when closed session is applicable, any final discussion and decision must be made in public.

These laws apply to all public bodies, for example the planning commission and housing commission, as well as other entities like school boards, library boards, DDA boards etc.

A common question is if officials can meet outside of meetings.  Slattery said that social gatherings and attendance at other meetings is permissible as long as they are not “deliberating to a decision” of public policy.

He also said that meetings must be posted and that minutes taken must be available to the board and the public at the next meeting.

The three hour session also covered more of the basics of local governance such as understanding a Charter and what rights municipalities have versus what laws are made at the state level.  He also talked about the value of having goals, setting the budget and understanding taxes.  The Michigan Municipal League offers many resources for elected officials, including the Elected Officials Academy where Slatttery spoke.

This article is the first in a series of articles about the MML weekend training.  If you aren’t already on our list for Daily Headlines, please sign up HERE so you won’t miss any of this exciting and informative series!

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