Welcome to Council World, newly elected City Council members! four new people will be taking their places on the council dais in City Hall come January 2014.
Since none of the four have been elected to political office before, they’re going to have a great deal to learn very quickly. Having gone through the experience myself, I’m going to paint a picture of how their world will change. They will find that their lives will be changing drastically into sounding boards, dartboards, and fish bowls.
• Sounding boards: Prepare to be spending a lot more time in the supermarkets. Your constituents will be cornering you and telling you what they think should be done on various city issues. You’ll have to become very good listeners if you aren’t already. They’ll also be asking a lot of questions they’ll expect you to know, but you don’t yet and you won’t for probably about a year and a half. Being in elective office is like drinking water out of a fire hose. I guarantee you’re going to feel overwhelmed.
The best answer for these constituents is to get their name and phone number and promise to get back to them with answers. Make a promise to call within a week after your encounter. Then keep your promise if you want to be reelected four years from now. You should start from day one to create a reputation that you care about the city and are reliable. Integrity comes from doing what you say you will do.
Voters are hungry for that kind of politician. Don’t make promises you can’t or won’t keep. You may have done that to get elected, but now is the time to stop and tell the truth.
• Dartboards: Don’t expect to get a lot of praise on how the city is run. Most of your constituents will notice the negative things about the city and will be quick to tell you. The more aware citizens will be asking you questions that will require you to think critically and creatively, neither of which is easy and both require a lot of effort. You will have to learn to think on your feet. Be careful what you say in council meetings because it is being televised. It will be remembered and thrown back at you by your future opponent four years from now. The things you say will likely be taken out of context, but, as I said, that’s Council World.
• In a fish bowl: For the next four years your privacy will be diminished. People will watch you and listen to your every word. Your life will become an open book. You have now become an authority figure and, as one, you will be both respected by some, and distrusted by others. America was founded by dislike of having government leaders in Britain telling them what to do. You have now inherited that mantel and you will wear it with discomfort.
If you drive too fast and get stopped by a police officer, your situation changes. Your new office will cause people to view you from a different perspective. That could either be a benefit or a detriment, but as time passes and you internalize your role ever more deeply, you will become more aware of your difference in people’s eyes—you are a politician with all that word’s multifaceted meanings. You will become more calculating and you will weigh your words, both spoken and written very carefully. You will also try to figure out the perspectives of the people you talk with, to avoid saying something that is offensive. You will truly be living in a fish bowl. Get used to it.
Newly elected officials, I’ve introduced you to Council World. For the next four or more years you will be living in that fish bowl, becoming both a sounding board and a dartboard. No matter what happens to you, you will be changed by that experience, and you will never see your world in the same way again. You and your constituents will be both enriched and burdened by the choices and decisions you make. You have an opportunity to do a great deal of good if your attitude is to serve and if you accept your new roles in Council World. Be prepared to be not only challenged, but also exhilarated by your experience.