Goals, Compromise, and Ethics Part of MTA Training for Elected Officials

Goals, Compromise, and Ethics Part of MTA Training for Elected Officials

(Crystal A. Proxmire, Feb. 17, 2019)

Okemos, MI – When a room full of elected officials from townships around the state were asked how many of their boards do annual or bi-annual goal-setting, only a couple raised their hands.

The question was asked at the Michigan Townships Association training on Jan. 23 in Okemos led by MTA Executive Director Larry Merrill.

The class helped officials gain practical knowledge about their elected positions.  It also talked about leadership philosophy and the value of doing things right. “There’s this concept we really love called ‘servant leadership,” Merrill said as he laid the foundation for the four-hour class.  “It’s about recognizing that first you have a duty to serve.”

In local governance, getting along is crucial.  “A lot of people incorrectly model their behavior based on what they think they see on a Federal level,” Merrill said.  We think the good public officials are the ones who pound on table and are righteously angry… When the cameras are off Congresspeople are very cordial to each other. There’s a lot of bipartisanship, but that doesn’t make the news.”

A more common challenge for officials is the pressure that comes from the public weighing in on issues.  Though most officials want public engagement, it can feel overwhelming. Sometimes officials try to avoid discussions by keeping matters out of the public eye, or by trying to rein in public comment.  “Listening to the public is our job.  This isn’t a hindrance to our work. This is our work.  “You can make public engagement more effective, but you can’t shut it off,” he said.

Merrill encouraged officials to keep the public informed and involved, touting the benefits of hearing multiple perspectives on issues before making a decision.  “It’s easy to be in an echo chamber and think that the public isn’t paying attention or doesn’t care,” he said.  “But they do… If the public learns about something though social media or rumor they are going to be offended they didn’t hear it from you.  Make them part of the process.”

Working well with other electeds, especially in times of disagreement, is also an important skill. Merrill suggested that building camaraderie when times are good can help make discussions easier when tough decisions need to be made.

“If you don’t have trust, the rest is a lot harder,” he said.

Compromise is also an essential element to effective governance.  In some communities there are factions, and votes are frequently split.  “How can the people trust [the decisions] with such a weak majority,” Merrill said.  “If people keep voting in a block, we get into more ins and outs and power plays…. Work on compromises and come up with something everyone can live with, and people trust the democracy better”

The training also covered the basics of ethics, like abstaining from votes if there is a potential conflict of interest, not accepting gifts or meals from those who do business with the city, and not hiring friends or family so as to avoid nepotism.

Merrill also urged officials to make the time to create structures that outline good governance, such as putting policies in writing, clearly defining roles and responsibilities of board members and staff, and doing regular goal setting sessions.

Even just framing discussions in terms of “the public good,” can go a long way in keeping the public trust as well as a healthy mindset for officials. “The board should talk about values on a regular basis,” Merrill said.  “Don’t just bring them out once in a while. Talk about values with every decision.”

The MTA’s Township Governance Academy offers various training and networking opportunities, as well as services to member communities.  There are 1,240 townships across the state, including several in Oakland County.

Learn more at the MTA website.

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