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Member Relations Corner: A Top Ten List for elected officials 

By Rob Shepherd, NCLM Assistant Director of Business Management and Membership Development Services

Every two years following the municipal election cycle, UNC School of Government and the North Carolina League of Municipalities hold a two-day conference in five locations for municipal elected officials. Most attendees are newly elected officials who have never held public office, but there are always several veteran elected officials who return for a refresher course. Many of the veteran elected officials find that the information they learned seems to make more sense as they gain experience.

I’ve had the chance to reflect on the questions we were asked and the stories we heard about challenges facing municipal governments at the Essentials of Municipal Government sessions. I’ve concluded that some of these issues can be addressed by knowing and understanding the basics, so I want to share a top 10 list I developed a few years ago.

  1. Review and understand your municipal charter. Municipalities operate under a charter authorizing the establishment of a municipal government and outlining the powers, authority and responsibilities of the municipal government. The charter designates things like the form of government for the municipality, the size, title and length of terms of the governing body, the election method used, organizational structure of municipal staff and much more.
  2. Understand your role as a municipal elected official. Know your unit’s form of government, the roles, lines of authority and statutory authority of the following positions: mayor, mayor pro-tem, manager or administrator, clerk, attorney and department heads.
  3. Know your statutory authority. North Carolina municipalities are creatures of the state legislature and only authorized to adopt rules, provide services and other functions with state permission. Authority from the state comes in broad general authority under the NC General Statutes or through a local act.
  4. Familiarize yourself with your municipality’s operations and services. To  understand how your municipality operates, you need to learn how and what services are provided. Ask your manager, administrator, clerk or department heads for a tour of the facilities and operations. Become informed about the level of services, costs, employees and their qualifications, experience and skills.
  5. The “buck stops” with you. Even though municipalities are required by law to appoint a finance officer and to select an auditor, the governing body that has the ultimate fiduciary responsibility. Ask questions of your finance officer and auditor about revenue, cost of services, the budget and the fund balance. Make sure you are receiving monthly or at least quarterly financial reports.
  6. Do you know your community? Find out what issues are facing your citizens and brainstorm ways to address them. Be sure to engage community leaders and confirm you have the statutory authority to address the issues.
  7. Be prepared! Becoming familiar with agenda packets and asking questions before meetings should help you make informed decisions at the meeting.
  8. Communicate, communicate, communicate! As with most relationships, communications is vital. The more communication there is, the better the board’s relationship. Make sure people in the community and media understand the difference of your personal opinion versus the official position of the municipality. The governing body should speak with one voice – once a vote is taken, be supportive of it even if you do not like the decision.
  9. Education and training. North Carolina is fortunate to have outstanding educational and training resources for local government officials. The League and the School of Government are committed to providing local government officials with education, training, publications, research and networking opportunities. The League is a partner of the Local Elected Leaders Academy that provides a structured program with recognition levels for its participants. It’s important for elected officials and staff to seek educational opportunities and new ideas with people outside your community. Visit www.nclm.org to learn about the many opportunities for education, training and networking through the League.
  10. Be Ethical. North Carolina law requires all members of local government governing boards to receive a minimum of two hours of ethics education within 12 months after initial election or appointment to office and again within 12 months after each subsequent election or appointment. The obligation to take the training and obtain verification of compliance with the law rests with the governing board member.

Obviously, there could be many more items added to it depending on the challenges and opportunities in your municipality, but I have found these to be the basics that hold true for municipalities of most every size. And, the one other important thing to know, please let us, the League staff, know if we can assist you in any way. We are here to serve you.