Recently elected to a position on the County Board of Supervisors or to a City Council? Congratulations? Or condolences? What next? How to prepare? Do’s? Don’ts.
As a newly elected official many questions swarm your mind. The transition can be difficult, but know that you are not alone. I was elected to the County Board of Supervisors in 2008 and was very fortunate to have six months to prepare for my assumption of office in January of 2009. Many are not so fortunate and have only two months to prepare after being elected in November. In either case, I would like to share some insights that not only helped me during my preparation or transition after election, but could also help an administrator of an organization working with a newly elected member.
I was reached out to soon after my election by the County Administrator of our County. He brought me into his office for a “Public Finance 101” course early on following my election. He provided me with a list of Department Heads along with their contact information. He also worked with County staff to be sure that I had a copy of every agenda or written material, not restricted to closed session of course, prior to every meeting. The time that he spent with me provided me a solid foundation for my transition and I am grateful for his willingness to assist me in beginning my journey as a County Supervisor. Remember, a CAO, CEO, or a City Manager can be a great asset to you. They are full of information and are there to help you.
Now, you have heard a little bit about what someone else can do to help you, but more importantly, what can YOU do to transition? First, do your research! Learn about the office you have been elected to. Of course during a campaign, you must learn the role of the position you campaign for however, it is important to know the duties and roles you play once in that position. Did you think about what committees you would serve on? How they function? How you can make an impact? Also, learn about the people who work in your building or work in your agency. People are the key to making any public agency what it is or can be. Understanding and familiarizing yourself with the employees will make your transition a lot easier, especially considering they have likely been there a lot longer. Don’t forget to also learn about your fellow colleagues. Who are they? How did they get to where they are? What are the most important things to them? You don’t have to be best friends, but knowing more about them than what one can glean just by attending your meetings can be critical to your success.
Secondly, communicate! Getting elected implies that you can communicate with people. You got your message across to the voters to get to where you are. It can be easy to sit back and not assert yourself during the first heated debate; but just remember, you have an insight that your constituents wanted representing them at the decision making table. Another critical aspect to good communication is good listening. Reach out to your constituents and ask them what they think about issues on a regular basis. Free-flowing dialogue is critical to representing your constituency. There are many means of communication and I would encourage you to stay approachable and be aware of what is going on around you.
Lastly, be optimistic! Being an elected official during these financial times is neither easy nor fun. Every agency is facing declining revenues resulting in a reduced level of services, layoffs, etc. What are you going to do when the Feds cut a grant? A program? What will you do as the State seeks further solutions to their budget shortfall? Which services/operations are prioritized or are most important to the people that you serve? What levels can be afforded? Stick to your guns and make the choices that need to be made today to set your agency up for a better tomorrow. It will come! Having a positive attitude is essential to sanity and also to the morale of your employees and constituents. You are a leader and people look to you for an example to follow!
Well, I hope the insights I have shared with you will be of some assistance in your transition. There really is no right way to get ready for the journey you are embarking upon. There are definitely people who are wiser than I. However, one thing I have learned in my tenure is how helpful suggestions from many people from many backgrounds really are to my success. If I can be of any further assistance in helping you be the best elected official or administrator you can be for your people, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Pete Vander Poel is a Tulare County Supervisor. He can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or (559) 636-5000.