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Board Member Article: Building Positive Relationships with the Council
By: John Kross, Town Manager, Queen Creek, ACMA President-Elect

Developing and maintaining the confidence of the city/town Council or Board is arguably the most challenging part of our jobs. It has become magnified during the last few years with the crumbling of the economy with continued stress on the communities we manage and our organizations. As manager, the issues we work on sometimes are thrust into the middle of the debate between candidates for office, generating unfortunate conflicts. There are some things we can do as managers to build and lead to lasting strong relationships with our elected officials that lead to mutual respect and maintenance of professionalism in this delicate relationship.

These strategies are not groundbreaking or particularly innovative, and certainly have been refined over the years, but in Queen Creek we have implemented a continuum of communication that begins early in this relationship building process - starting with step one: the candidate briefing.

The candidate briefing begins within a month after the council candidates are officially certified. The briefing is an evening meeting, where all the candidates are invited to a presentation and Q&A with the Town Manager and Department Heads. The candidate briefing is intended to introduce the management team, share information on the town, the organization, key strategic initiatives we are working on including the Council-Manager form of government. We make no assumptions about a candidate's prior experience in local government, their knowledge of the form of government or what we do. A main message in this meeting is to let them know we are available as a resource for factual information and that if elected; we are a resource for them and desire to see them be successful council members.

Once elected, step two, is the orientation to their roles as an elected official in our localized situation. The name has stuck for years, but we affectionately call this Queen Creek University. This orientation program includes a resource binder outlining the curriculum but importantly information they will need to be effective in their new role. Queen Creek University is five to six session orientation program, providing information on the departments, their mission, the department managers, and other key staff. A key component to this program is understanding how and whom to contact for information and procedurally, how they advance their items of interest on the council agenda.

There are elemental but key provisions we spend a tremendous amount of time discussing. In addition to contacting key personnel, instruction is provided on how we provide information to individual members and the group as a whole. A frank discussion is provided about information for the benefit of the entire council versus individual members. Generally speaking, we operate under the policy of if one asks for information; they all get that same information.

During step two of the university program, a vital document we reference frequently is the adopted Council Protocols. For Queen Creek, this is the guide for how the Council conducts its business, the process they use to get their items on the Council's public agenda, use of staff time on their own ideas and initiatives and most importantly: an agreement on how they will communicate with each other. Elements of the protocols are revisited each year during the annual retreat with an emphasis on gaining consensus for maintaining the high road of professionalism ensuring they agree to publicly praise one another but allow an environment for private criticism. Sometimes this is better said than done, but a continuous revisiting of the protocols is imperative to positive communication amongst the team.

The third and final step of the relationship building process is multi-faceted but includes not only face-to-face and written communication but a quarterly check-in with the entire Council under the personnel provisions for executive session. This quarterly performance check-in is critical to reinforce direction, an opportunity for goal assessment and managing expectations.

Weaved within all the above includes an ongoing bi-weekly meetings between the manager and individual council members briefing them on the upcoming Council agenda including an open-ended discussion of any other issues of concern. Also, distributed is an electronic placement of the Weekly Packet, a publication we use that includes the calendars of the Mayor and Council Members; agendas of upcoming committee meetings; planning and zoning cases in the queue and issues of emerging or ongoing involvement. In addition, to these methods, issue-dependent email and telephonic communication is conducted as expected.

Building strong, positive relationships lead to trust and confidence but takes considerable time. While there is not a tried and true system that will work for every personality or situation, valuing our time as an essential investment into the council-manager relationship is vital for our success and the success of our elected officials.
Arizona City/County Management Association
1820 W. Washington Street, Phoenix, AZ 85007   •   Phone: (602) 258-5786   •   Fax: (602) 253-3874   •   www.azmanagement.org