Counseling Future Councils

SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK



                I retired from my position on the Albion Town Council at the end of the year, giving me a chance to move to a warmer climate and live a relaxed life of peaceful …

                Oh, who am I kidding? I got fired by six votes, and I’m not going anywhere.

                Perhaps some of my fourteen regular readers are thinking, “Mark, what accomplishments do you have to show for your eight years in office?” good question, all fourteen of you.

                The answer: Nothin’.

                No one person accomplishes anything on a Council. Certainly no one person gets full credit for any kind of major project in a small town. Leave the bragging about what “I” did to Presidential politics.

Unlike many state and federal offices, a small town council doesn’t compensate enough to make it something you do for money or power. A few candidates might come in with an ax to grind, but most do it because of their vision for the town, whether that vision is a thriving community looking toward the future, or turning the clock back to a sleepy little town of the 50’s.

I’m happy to say that none of the Council members of the last several years were stuck in the 50’s. They understand the challenges of growth and change; not one was ever complacent, and not one ever played favorites at the expense of the town. They were open to communication and fresh ideas, business friendly, and financially responsible. If they stay that way, Albion will be ready for success when and if the economy improves.

Also, none of them ever put any tacks on my Council chair, which I appreciate.

Oh, there’s a lot I’m proud of; there’s just nothing I can point to that I did alone, and that’s as it should be. So instead of extolling the wonderfulness that is me, I’d like to pass on some of the things I’ve learned from the job, and give some advice to community representatives of the future.

First, the wheels grind slowly. Usually there’s not a darn thing you can do about it, and usually it works out for the best. No matter how certain you are as to the best direction, take the time to sit back and study all the factors and alternatives.

The state and federal governments control a great deal of what you do, and there’s not much you can do about that, either. They’ll assume they know what should happen in your little town better than you do – especially the feds. Every attempt they make to gather strings of control and money should be resisted with all your energy, but the strings they already have are pretty firmly in their grasp.

Luckily a cadre of people gathers at coffee shops, restaurants and other points across town to happily solve all the world’s problems, including yours, while informing each other of why you’re doing it wrong. They seldom tell you that to your face, of course. They’re called armchair quarterbacks, although most never take the snap and carry the ball a few yards themselves.

Nor will many bother to come to meetings, talk to Council members or the Town Manager, or otherwise educate themselves on how things work. They’ll just complain. Complaining is the natural disposition of the human race, and is usually pretty harmless until someone’s complaint turns into a rumor that, by the time it reaches the other side of town, becomes the gospel truth. You can’t do anything about it. Well, you could spread rumors about them, but this isn’t fifth grade.

If one person comes in who does have a legitimate complain, chances are there are dozens more who have the same complaint. Don’t blow it off because no one seems interested.

On the other hand, be cautious of judging the opinion of everyone in down based on what one or two individuals say. Just as with national politics, the people who make the most noise at the local level are often – not always – on one extreme or another. They may be the “not in my back yard” types who are concerned only with themselves (not that they’re always wrong), or skilled crap stirrers who delight in causing hate and discontent, regardless of what excuse they come up with to do it.

The crap stirrers are also sometimes right – in fact, nothing makes them happier than to stumble upon an area in which they’re technically correct, then drive it like a stake into the spirits of everyone around them. They don’t really care about being right – they just love knowing that they can’t be ignored.

Remember, your job is to do what’s correct for the town, as long as it doesn’t stamp on individual rights any more than absolutely necessary. Don’t screw up the entire community for the sake of one complainer, but don’t use the common good as an excuse to bury someone you don’t like. Nobody said it would be easy.

Your job is to be a steward of town’s resources: That means not only knowing when not to spend money, but knowing when to spend it wisely. Don’t be short-term cheap, only to have something cost more down the road. Don’t throw money at something just because it looks good; that’s what the federal government is for.

Trust your department heads, and if you don’t trust them you’d better figure out why. Albion’s utility workers can take three wire clothes hangers and make a spaceship. Our Park people are the hardest working folks in the business. Our cops and firefighters are on the line at all hours. Our administrative people face a blizzard of unfunded mandates and regulations every day. Don’t skimp on educating yourselves: Understand what they do, and why they do it.

Above all, remember that you work for the town, not the other way around. Any community that doesn’t grow, adapt and prepare is doomed to shrink and die – you make the difference between being stuck in the 20th Century and leading into the 21st.

As for me, well, I’ve got books to write – but I’ll be around.