Thoughts on Being an Alderman

I have been going through some old files in anticipation of this election.

Three years ago, when I decided not to run again, I made a presentation at a Common Council meeting encouraging people to run to replace me.  As part of that presentation, I gave the following advice to prospective candidates.  I tried to follow these “rules” when I served on the Council, and I will try to follow them again if I am reelected in April.  In fact, I think this is good advice for all holders of elected office.

I want to pass on to prospective candidates a few of the things I have learned about being an alderman:

  1. If you try to make everyone happy, you will fail (and will drive yourself crazy). On most issues, you will make some people happy and others not. Sooner or later, you will find that, at some point, you have disagreed with everyone you know or meet. If you are smart and honest, the majority will judge you based on your cumulative work.
  2. Never fear doing the right thing or making a decision because it might hurt you in the next election. If holding the office is that important to you, than you probably should not hold office.
  3. You can disagree with other aldermen without being disagreeable. You will accomplish more if you get along with other aldermen. Right or wrong, they are good people.
  4. Simply because the folks on one side of an issue make more noise, they do not necessarily represent the majority of your district or the City. Even 100 people showing up at a meeting does not necessarily indicate a majority opinion. Usually, only one side of an issue speaks up. Often, the other side is the majority view.
  5. Regardless of your preconceived notions, Mequon employees are a dedicated group. They care, work hard and generally do a good job. Do not expect a bunch of lazy bureaucrats. They have areas of expertise. On the other hand, remember that their jobs only exist to serve the City. The City does not exist to provide them a job. Occasionally, they may have their own politics and agenda and, on some issues, they might not agree with you and your constituents. Do what you think is right, not what staff thinks is right. Hold them accountable.
  6. Have thick skin. Most of the residents you deal with on City issues will be polite, and a few will appreciate your efforts. Others will assume the worst about you because you are a “politician” and, in this highly politicized world, some will be rude and condescending. Be polite in return.
  7. Over the years, some of your most ardent adversaries will become your friends. Remember that as you deal with people.
  8. Many people want someone in government to listen to them. If you listen, they will respect you and might come to welcome your views, too.
  9. Talk to your neighbors. Talk to the press. These are obligations and are necessary for good government. So are open records and open meetings.
  10. Listen to your constituents. Listen to staff. Listen to your colleagues. Listen to your common sense. But, when an issue is difficult, seek out independent, legitimate experts (not consultants who make their living off of government) and listen to them also.
  11. Most of the time, creating committees and task forces is just a way to defer making decisions.
  12. Be opinionated, but build consensus.
  13. Government moves far too slowly. Getting frustrated won’t change that. But, if you wait for staff to put something together, your term will be over and you will have accomplished nothing.   Therefore, push. Push hard.
  14. Some neighbors will complain about each development proposal. That does not make the proposed developments bad. Usually anxiety and fear of the unknown cause the complaints. Anxiety and fear are not good compasses of public policy.
  15. Spending more money does not in itself solve problems.   Of course, things do not get done without money, but much can be done within the confines of a budget. Prioritize. Do not just decide to spend more and think you are getting things done.
  16. Apply the law as it is written, not how you want it to be written. If a policy or law is wrong, change it. Do not just ignore it. Flexibility is important, but consistency and fairness are even more important.
  17. You are not a member of a board of directors, even if some of your colleagues act that way. Board members oversee management and wait for issues to be presented to them. You are a legislator. Propose things. Ensure your voice is heard. Ensure your proposals move forward. Nobody will do that for you.
  18. Details are important. The “Big Picture” is not enough. Make sure that ordinances and policies are written correctly and precisely. Many good ideas that have been poorly executed have come back to haunt the City.
  19. Principles about government’s proper role are more important than a specific agenda. Hold fast to your principles, and your agenda will follow.
  20. Change what should be improved, but please do not throw out the baby with the bath water. You and your neighbors moved to Mequon for a reason. It is a great place.
  21. If you are prepared, and insistent, and know what you are talking about, you can have as much or more influence than the Mayor. Use that influence.
  22. An elected official is not personally important.   Do not act like you are. You are a servant of the people. That does not mean that you should act obsequiously submissive. Step forward and be heard. You can make a difference. But do not pretend that you are important. Most people you meet, regardless of how long you serve, will not know or care that you are an alderman.
  23. Have a sense of humor. Have fun as an alderman. It can be personally rewarding.
  24. Quit while you still have something to offer, rather than biding your time until your term is done.
  25. Finally, to steal from Ronald Reagan, “[w]hen we start thinking of government as ‘us’ instead of ‘them,’ we’ve been here too long.” Be an advocate for the people of Mequon, not just the government of Mequon.

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