Ask Ellie & Jill: Working with the City Council

Posted on August 2, 2018

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In the series, ELGL members can anonymously send their questions, difficulties or scenarios to [email protected] and receive a response from the ghost writing response team. Your name, organization and other details will not be shared in the posting or subsequent response.

Dear Ellie & Jill,

I am getting very frustrated with one of the City Council members where I work. He comes to City Council unprepared. It’s obvious he hasn’t read staff reports, or when he does, he claims they don’t include enough information. He’ll claim he didn’t receive documents that we can easily prove were sent to him or available on our online agenda system. Sometimes he delays important votes by a couple weeks because of this—but the information was there the whole time. How do I handle this?


Frustrated Staffer

Oh Frustrated Staffer, we hear you! There is nothing more annoying that working your tail off on a spectacular staff report and then getting the treatment you described in your letter. Unfortunately, this is a complaint we hear often.

The heart of this problem is that you and your colleagues spend all day every day immersed in your specialized and technical work and your elected officials are part-time generalists. You will likely never change a Council member’s report-reading or meeting prep habits, but there are some steps you can take to minimize your frustration and improve your working relationship with this Council member.

Get to Know Your Council Members

This will sound silly, but your Council members are people too. Get to know them. Find opportunities to talk with them one-on-one, whether a coffee date, chatting at a community event, or walking out to the parking lot together after a meeting. Getting to know your Council members will help you see them as humans—they have day jobs, families, hobbies and passions. You might share some common interests that make it easier to connect.

When you know your Council members better, you may learn a little more about their motivations and concerns. Perhaps they have an underlying concern about the environment or about fiscal matters. When you know this, you can tailor information in your reports and communications to address those needs.

Cultivate Compassion

You and your Council members may have chosen different paths, but you are working toward the same goal—serving the community. They have made significant personal and family sacrifices to be where they are. Council campaigns can be expensive. They open a person and their family up to scrutiny and mud-slinging. Many members are serving in addition to maintaining a full-time job—which means they are doing what they can with limited time and expertise, while missing out on family time. The next time you’re feeling frustrated, take a deep breath and remind yourself, “They love this town too.”

Keep Trying

As thorough and understandable as you may believe your staff reports are, it’s possible that they’re not meeting your Council members’ needs. Find a peer or mentor in another department to review them prior to submission to see if they are understandable to someone who isn’t an expert in your field.

Keep in mind that the average American reads at a 7th or 8th grade level.  You may need to simplify your writing style with shorter sentences, more bullet lists and simple charts and tables. A quick way to check your writing is the Flesch-Kinkaid Reading score available in MS Word and online. Fun fact–a quick scan of this article reveals that it’s written at a 9th grade level.

If you feel comfortable doing so, you can even ask your Council member privately if they have any suggestions for improving your reports. Or perhaps if you have a big vote coming up, you could call up your Council member prior to the meeting to check in and see if he has any questions.

Let it Go

Finally, and this is good advice for nearly any work-related situation, try not to take this personally. Over your long and accomplished career in public service, you will have awesome Council members and you will have frustrating Council members. If you’ve done all that you can to ensure that you’re communicating effectively, and the behavior persists, you must learn to let it go. If this doesn’t come easy, connect with a colleague or mentor who appears to have mastered the art of not taking things personally, and pick their brain about how they got there. Consider meditation or another calming practice to help you refocus your energy. And most importantly, know that you are not alone. We’ve all been there!

Your Friends,

Ellie & Jill

Submit your own questions to ELGL Ask Ellie & Jill using the anonymous form at or by emailing [email protected].

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