Learning the ropes

MARSHALL – Every elected official had a first time once, usually in a local office and very likely a seat on a city council.

Many expect to have to learn on the job, but fortunately for their constituents and taxpayers, the League of Minnesota Cities can help them hit the ground running.

Ellayne Conyers from Marshall, Cheryl Bowman from Milroy and Sarina Otaibi from Granite Falls are all newcomers, elected to the city councils of their respective cities in November. After they were elected, they found out there was a day-long seminar course put on by the LMC in Mankato for people in their position.

“We estimate we get at least half of newly elected officials,” said Kevin Frazell, director of member services for LMC. “This year we welcomed close to 400, from the smallest to the largest communities in the state.”

Frazell said he didn’t know how long the seminar course had been offered, just that it has been in place for the 16 years he’s worked for LMC, and has had pretty much the same form for 20 to 30 years. The LMC was founded in 1913.

What all the newcomers found out was, the problems of running a city are pretty much the same for a small town. Small towns may even be harder for council members, since with smaller full time staff, more responsibilities fall on the elected officials.

And the administration works much the same whatever form of government the city uses: council-manager, weak mayor-council, or strong mayor system, according to Frazell.

“The kind of issues we deal with are pretty much the same for everybody and are defined by law,” Frazell said.

Conyers found out about the seminar from the Marshall city administration shortly after she was elected and said it was a valuable experience, though a bit overwhelming.

“They gave us a packet that was two inches thick,” Conyers said. “The thing that sticks out in my mind is the open meeting law that I wasn’t aware of. If two city council people get together at the coffee shop, it’s OK. But if a third joins them it’s a council meeting and the public has to know about it 24 hours in advance. If we all take a tour, they recommend we ride in separate cars.”

It might be even more complicated in smaller towns, where your city councilman might be your neighbor.

“It was nice to know what you can and cannot do,” Bowman said. “If you own a business in town, you cannot bid on a project. You cannot be a full time employee of the city. You can be a part time employee but have to abstain from anything having to do with the job. If a neighbor wants a variance, you have to abstain because it affects your property. A lot of people were shocked at what you can’t do.”

Otaibi is a native of Granite Falls and returned to work for Clean Up the River Environment and in historic preservation after college. At 27, she is the youngest council member in the area.

“I was curious about the process and wanted to see how local government works,” Otaibi said. “The city manager offered the course to me. I was surprised at how little I knew about the legalities and the finance aspect of it.”

One way the office changes a council member’s life is the laws concerning gifts and conflicts of interest.

“If I go to a Chamber of Commerce ‘Business After Hours’ function, there’s free food,” Conyers said. “I cannot eat unless I put a couple of dollars in for a donation, but that will not save you from criticism. Even if I went to someone’s in my ward’s house to look at his drainage problem, if they offered me a glass of lemonade – no!”

Conyers said she’s excited about the new job, because unlike the federal and state government, it’s the one level of government people still feel close to.

Still, it is perhaps more of a change than the newcomers were expecting.

“It does kind of change your lifestyle and how you relate to other people,” Otaibi said. “You have to be careful about it.”