Welcome to week #15 of the Cookingham Connection. On Friday, we heard from Mr. Tom Bonfield, the city manager of Durham, North Carolina, about Guidepost #15. Today, we learn from Mr. Jim Lenner, the Village Manager/planner for Johnstown, Ohio. Mr. Lenner was appointed as Village Manager in December of 2010. Previously, he served as Johnstown’s Village Planner. Jim received his masters degree in Public Affairs from Park University in 2011 and his bachelors degree from Muskingum University in 2003. He also has worked for the Licking County Planning Commission and the Town of Warrenton, Virginia.
Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut during council meetings. This is one of the most important principles in the field of council-manager relations. I have known more managers who have talked themselves out of jobs than into jobs. The members of the council are elected by the people and know something about the business of municipal government. When they want information from the manager, they will ask him for it, and it is well to have the information when requested.
They call the meetings Council meetings and not City Manager meetings for a reason. The council meetings are a venue to discuss public business and our jobs as managers it to make sure our council members have the best information, analysis and data available to them. It is their time to show the public they are doing their job and doing it well.
We are often questioned by members of the public or by council members of information or impacts on policy issues. In my first few council meetings, I found myself making an educated guess at a question that ended up being inaccurate. That is not what you want in an open meeting setting or any other setting for that matter. When questions are pointed at you and you are not 100% sure of the answer, I have found it best to simple state that “I will research your question and report back in two weeks.” I make sure I listen intently to their question to ensure accuracy in my reporting. To date that process has proven invaluable.
The role of running the meeting is not ours as managers. I often tried to control the meeting so that it ran smoothly. I learned the meeting is not ours to control but that of the council. I also learned meetings don’t run smoothly and that is okay. Sometimes the best discussion came from dissent and confusion during a public meeting. By keeping my mouth closed I was able to listen to opposing thoughts and ideas of both council members and the public on policy decisions.
I recently learned by experience Council meetings are not just for dialogue between the council, manager and public but with department directors and staff. I found myself talking about topics that I had limited knowledge of. I once spoke of a new wastewater treatment process when the service director was there and can recite the data in his sleep. Why was I attempting to talk about a foreign topic when the subject matter expert was sitting in the audience? I needed to keep my ears open and my moth shut at that time. In this worst-case scenario, the information I was speaking about was misinformation at best and not entirely true at worst.
Our society loves immediate information and reaction as soon as it is available. We prepare ourselves for most situations during a council meeting but cannot prepare for all situations. It is best to get the information to council members prior to the meeting so they can make informed decisions and lessen the amount of questioning during the meeting. However, members of the public usually want answers immediately and they do not want to wait. That is something you cannot control as easily. Be sure to listen to the request and answer truthfully if you do not know.