Communication with the Public
The life of a public official is just that, public. Though committee members should feel comfortable speaking their mind and answering questions, what a committee member shares can have an impact on public perception of the entire municipal organization. With that in mind, here are some things to consider when communicating with residents regarding municipal issues.
Representing the Committee
No single committee member, including common councilmembers, can individually commit the city as a whole, or their respective committee to a position on an issue without a vote or consent of that committee. It is inappropriate to commit to things the whole committee may not be aware of or approve.
Committee members should refer requests for official positions on an issue to staff for review and recommendation. The matter should then be added to an agenda to obtain the committee’s official position.
Complaints from Citizens
If a committee member receives a complaint not related to employee behavior, s/he is encouraged to share the details of the complaint and complainant contact information with city staff so that any problems can be addressed.
Report or Refer the Complaint: Often the complainant is looking for an understanding ear and agreement from the committee member. While committee members are encouraged to be sensitive to the plight of the complainant, committee members should not attempt to promise a particular outcome or attempt an interpretation of the ordinance or policy related to the complainant’s concern. Instead, committee members should commit to passing along the information to the appropriate staff person for resolution.
Avoid Sharing at Meetings: Avoid waiting to bring up citizen complaints until the next committee meeting. While doing so may appear to be a manner of “holding government accountable” the reality is that bringing up complaints at a public meeting can deflate staff, embarrass or annoy other committee members, and ultimately damage the credibility of the organization. This is all in addition to making the complainant wait to have their concern heard thus delaying resolution.
Avoid Private Disputes. Occasionally, a committee member may be asked to get his/her committee involved in what is purely a private dispute. These disputes typically include nuisance complaints, work hours for contractors, boundary line disputes, fence problems, and many, many similar issues. Intercession in such matters will be a drain on resources and will ultimately prove fruitless. If a committee member is unclear as to whether an issue is a private dispute or is within the City’s jurisdiction, s/he is encouraged to refer the issue to city staff so that a proper determination can be made and subsequently shared with the complainant.
Complaints Regarding Employee Behavior
Citizen complaints regarding employee behavior or performance should always be referred to the city manager for investigation and resolution.
Common councilmembers, and occasionally other committee members, may be approached by the media and asked for commentary on a council action or position on an issue. To the extent that the common council has taken an official action or position, the city manager, or his/her designee will generally be the spokesperson. Common councilmembers, however, are not prohibited from sharing personal opinions with the media or from referencing previous public actions taken by the common council as a whole. The same applies to other municipal committees.
Represent General Interests
As previously stated in this manual, committee efforts should always focus on what is best for the city as a whole. Common councilmembers and other committee members must be careful to represent the general interests of the City and not special interest groups.