A year ago this week I spend several hours picking up campaign signs littered throughout the City of Kyle. The feeling was cathartic. The campaign to get elected to city council had been going on for nine months, and after all the door-knocking, stamp-licking, video-making, spreadsheet-scrolling, and event-attending, the election was finally over.
Of course, in politics, the campaign race only gets you to the starting line. One year later, I’ve taken some time to reflect on the biggest lessons learned of the actual work of my public service.
Preparation is key to affecting change
Generally speaking, very little work is done at a city council meeting. That time is reserved for engaging with the citizens who wish to comment, arguing my points to others on council while listening to theirs, and voting. The real work for a councilmember is done long before the meeting. For example, most council agenda packets are 100-400 pages long. There is a mountain of information to digest before forming an opinion. Even then, items can be so complicated that staff meetings are needed to help clarify issues and get a sense of how an item fits into the big picture.
And then there’s the community. Part of my job on council is to digest information and then communicate the relevant facts to the public so they can weigh in and be involved before a vote takes place. This is a challenge because oftentimes the public will not be in consensus on an issue, or perhaps the majority of folks will respond with answers I don’t particularly agree with. Regardless, it is my job to prepare and make known the issue that effect our city and, above all, listen to what our citizens have to say.
When possible, collaborate with others
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” — John Donne
The best way to be effective as a councilmember is to learn how my colleagues view items and find ways to collaborate so that everyone feels their voice is heard and the item is something everyone can support. Of course, the first step to collaboration is the utter-abandonment of grandstanding. Rather, it always helps to listen with both ears and try to understand what makes my colleagues tick. In doing so, I learn just as much as I educate. I don’t always agree, and therefore I vote against items on a semi-regular basis, but I have learned just how powerful collaboration can be in getting to a solution for the betterment of the city and its citizens.
The most impacting decisions are sometimes overlooked by the public
This lesson shouldn’t be construed as talking down to the public. That’s certainly not my intention. I’ve just come to realize that some of the more significant votes and decisions are not necessarily in the purview of our citizens, while lesser issues or issues of which the council has no control over seem to rule the day.
For example, in the last few months the top three issues I’ve received emails on are related to our chicken ordinance, Time Warner Cable, and issues related to the school district. But HCPUA, which is a regional water providing company bringing $250m worth of water infrastructure to our area, is seldom discussed on social media and I’ve yet to receive a single email on the matter. Kyle is facing significant decisions regarding that project, including and especially how to pay for our portion. Some of those decisions could have major implications on the long-term financial health of our utility fund and will certainly have a corresponding impact on water rates in Kyle.
That said, it is my job as a councilmember to bring those issues to the forefront in as much as it depends on me to do so.
I despise grandstanding and demagoguery
We live in a polarizing political climate, where some elected officials seek to make wedges out of issues by reducing its substance to an emotion-based talking point that can be repeated over-and-over-and-over. The goal of a demagogue is to galvanize support among a base of voters while inciting those voters to foam in anger at “the other guys.” And, unfortunately, the strategy can be successful up to a point.
In the national scene, virtually every word from Trump is some form of demagoguery. His critics employ the exact same tactics. It’s a war where the ammo is accusatory, double-talking rhetoric and the guns are a litany of talking heads. Here in Hays County, the politics are much more civil. But even here, some groups of people are seemingly incapable of engaging in civil discourse and debate without reducing themselves to a grandstanding mouth-piece.
Thankfully, all I have to do is meet with any number of everyday citizens to realize that people are far less politicized than the media would have us believe. Regular people are intrinsically civil and, when approached transparently about the pros and cons of an issue, almost always respond rationally and with respect for both sides of the debate.
Every benefit has a detriment, every decision has a cost, every point has a counterpoint.
The more I learn about how our city works from a financial perspective, the more I realize just how difficult it is to make wise decisions. That’s because every financial decision — I mean every financial decision — has an opportunity cost.
Of course, that’s the way it should be. Money doesn’t grow on trees. Any working family can attest to this truth. But with government the challenge is to accurately gauge public sentiment and make wise decisions that are in the best interest of the most people.
Recently the city has been considering what to do with sidewalk maintenance. Our current ordinance says sidewalk maintenance is the responsibility of the homeowner. Many citizens in the community think the city should pay for it. But it’s all the citizen’s money, after all. So the citizen has to pay for it one way or another. The challenge is to figure out what way is best.
For example, if we do continue with the status-quo, the reality is that many homeowners are not likely to repair their sidewalks and the town will run down over time. Those who do repair their sidewalk will pay for it themselves.
On the other hand, if the city takes over sidewalk maintenance, taxpayer money must be used. And that means taxpayers must be taxed for that money. This seems intuitive, but I often get the sense that people don’t naturally make the connection between a service and its corresponding cost. What’s more, if you don’t have a sidewalk or don’t need repair, the tax is coming from your pocket to repair your neighbor’s sidewalk. And how is that fair?
In the end, I am learning that hasty decisions are often wrong-headed and reactionary. The best way to make a decision is to fully digest the problem before acting. Oftentimes a solution will present itself only after the problem is fully understood.
Citizens crave engagement from their leaders
I have known this for sometime, but recently I have come to realize just how valuable an informed and thoughtful response can be to someone who reaches out with a problem. One of the core values of our city is “yes-attitude.” It means having a willingness to solve problems with tact. There’s nothing more frustrating for a citizen than to have an issue and get cold-shouldered from those in a position to do something. I am grateful our city tries to be available to its citizenry and I have enjoyed trying to model that approach with those who have reached out to me for help.
A great staff is essential to successfully leading the city
If I have learned one thing this year on council it is this: A great staff is critical to a greatly run city. The City of Kyle has a top-tier staff built of knowledgeable and dedicated individuals. It starts with our city manager, Scott Sellers, but certainly does not end there. Our department heads are a wealth of knowledge and maintain a firm commitment to delivering excellent service. They continually work hard to make my job easy by caring for all of our citizens. For their work I am immeasurably grateful.