Guidelines for rookie local elected officials

Steve Brown's picture

This could be useful for newly elected politicians and students of political science as they will not learn this in class.

In government, the solutions (generally speaking) are easy to come by, but the outside pressures make every decision difficult. Consequently, those free meals, golf outings and VIP treatments are not really free. Hence, there is a sense of obligation and payback which accompanies the niceties of public office.

If you are a member of a civic organization or the Chamber of Commerce, then be careful. Good people in elected office have been beaten senseless by peer pressure from their fellow group members, some making money off of government decisions. Unfortunately, many politicians allow themselves to be herded by special interest and large contributors.

Most people enter elected office with the severe handicap of not knowing the noteworthy historical details that led previous decision-makers to chart a course in a certain direction. So, thinking you know all the answers without consulting historical references will usually run your ship aground.

Nearly all constituents desire principled leadership, but principles have to be based on something you truly believe in or you are apt to waft whichever way the wind is blowing. How many times have we heard the candidate say she will abide by a certain value only to turn around and do the opposite? Such an outcome normally stems from either a lack of knowledge or a lack of principles or both. Alexander Hamilton was right, “Those who stand for nothing, fall for anything.”

For those new to elected offices who believe they will be the source of contentment and harmony within the elected body, it’s time to wake up. Yes, mature adults can agree to disagree, but you will soon learn that others in the body can have ulterior motives, making it hard to smile and let go.

Remember that change is never easy or popular. Human beings are naturally conditioned to resist change, even defying truth and logic.

There are two ways to exist in political office: taking a stand or conceding. Taking a stand usually means holding fast to a principle, while conceding typically signifies bowing to pressure. Rare, indeed, are the politicians who can stand firm while facing powerful special interests. However, most people compromise their principles in order to be accepted by their peers. (It is important to note that history generally smiles upon those who take a stand.)

By the way, it’s not okay to commit to an action in conflict with your principles just because the jurisdiction’s attorney says it’s acceptable.

In government service, “truth” and “courage” are synonymous.

Do not be naive and expect fair fights in political circles. Whenever money or pride is at stake, count on people lying, cheating and cajoling to achieve the outcome they desire. Likewise, be aware that the opposition can easily use rumors and innuendo, dealing them as truth, to stir up public anger against you.

In politics, it is easy to forget the powerless. Children who cannot vote are often ignored. Seniors on fixed incomes are never as attractive as big money special interests.

Although contrary to human nature, it is best if public officials consult someone with an opposing view regarding major issues. Many of the best ordinances I ever produced came from committees with differing opinions on them. Similarly, if you fear conflict, you are doomed to political ineffectiveness. Intelligent, public and sometimes heated debate creates a healthy democracy, as witnessed over the past 233 years.

For your constituents to trust you, avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest. And know that once you have breached the threshold of conflict of interest, you will be doubted for the remainder of your term.

If you can balance your home checkbook, you can balance a large municipal budget. The word “no” comes in very handy when special interests show up wanting a handout. As a rule, a budget should be prepared taking a serious look at least two years beyond the upcoming fiscal year. Also, remember that short-term fixes do not resolve long-term systemic budgeting problems.

There is a good reason freedom of speech is in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Elected officials who suppress public speech with meeting restrictions and time limits show little regard for free speech and the public interest. Equally as important, public officials who ignore correspondence from their constituents are failing at being a public servant.

Giving an answer around a question is commonplace in modern government. Some in government think dodging a question will get them off the hook, but it rarely does.

Elected officials who are afraid of addressing big issues in fear of not being re-elected will not be looked upon favorably. This is why Congress had a 20-something percent approval rating in the last public opinion poll, disliked by voters in both parties. With that being said, most elected officials can focus no further than the next election, and substantial issues will not fit into that time frame.

It is never a good idea for an elected official’s relatives to work for the same jurisdiction or for an organization lobbying the jurisdiction.

When the facts do not work in a party’s favor, character assassination is the preferred substitute. Calling the person “uneducated” or “divisive” or “unpatriotic” or “racist” or “Nazi” will help break the argument down so the facts are not as important.

To be able to protect and promote an issue, something like the land use plan or the village concept, you must have a legitimate understanding of it. Moreover, you also have to care about it. There is no greater indicator of incompetence than listening to a politician ramble about the value of something he has bargained away on several occasions in the past.

Nearly all elected officials believe the enemy is the other political party. As an alternative, they might want to consider the enemy as a significant problem threatening our quality of life, and work with the opposing party to solve it.

[Steve Brown is the former mayor of Peachtree City. He can be reached at]

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