Service remains fulfilling despite the frustrations

The first issue I want to make very clear is this: I love serving on the Carlton City Council.

Guest Writer

Guest writer Linda Watkins grew up in a civil service family in Northern California. Her father worked for the U.S. Forest Service, her mom for the local sheriff’s office. She arrived in Oregon by way of Idaho, where she held jobs with the Idaho State Bar and the Idaho State Controller’s Office. She makes her home in Carlton, where she won election to the city council in November, following a term of service on the planning commission.


Some of my observations and thoughts on council life may make you wonder about that. But, however frustrated or annoyed I may be with the rules or the process, every day I say a small thank you to the voters for their faith in me. As I walk around town, I feel a stronger commitment than I’ve ever felt before to this home.

I was elected just last year, which means I’m not even a quarter way through my first term. So that could change.

If it does, I hope I have the good sense to leave office rather than succumb to inertia and just hang in there, which often seems to happen with elected officials.

My parents both retired from civil service jobs – my father from the U.S. Forest Service, my mother from a rural county sheriff’s office.

After high school, I worked for outfitters in Idaho’s Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness. We worked daily with government regulators and kept close track of changing regulations.

After college, I worked for the Idaho State Bar, Idaho’s attorney licensing and regulatory agency. Then I became public information officer for the Idaho State Controller’s Office, one of the last statewide posts held by a Democrat. My husband has more than 40 years of experience reporting and writing about government.

With this background, I figured I had sufficient exposure to the vagaries of government function — or dysfunction, as the case may be — for city council service. And indeed, the issues we deal with and most of the parameters we work within, haven’t come as any big surprise.

I do find myself censoring my comments somewhat and listening more closely to what others are saying. I try to remember I can’t make promises or guarantees regarding how I’ll vote on any issue, because we may get last-minute information that changes the whole equation.

One of the great weaknesses of our governmental system is that we spend a lot of time telling folks it’s “their” government, but don’t put the same effort into teaching them how to find access and have impact.

Just about daily, I see or hear “the city should” comments. I try to respond by encouraging the commenter to describe what is envisioned, including the logistics and cost of implementation.

I don’t do this to be snarky. I believe if a person has a vision, I want to hear it.

Taking a vague suggestion and turning it into a reality, without knowing exactly how you want it to look, is tantamount to telling a builder you want a house, but aren’t interested in supplying a blueprint. If you want something done, you need to show up and get involved.

You can’t assume someone else is going to do it the same way you would. The citizens are “the city,” and if they want change, they need to make it happen.

On the other side of the involvement coin is one of the big surprises for newly elected officials — learning the limits of the power we actually have.

Local jurisdictions have legal requirements and boundaries imposed by the state and federal governments. Any initiative you want to pursue first needs to clear those hurdles.

You want to have a clear working relationship with your city manager, county administrator or chief of staff. Their counsel can save you a world of grief and frustration — or endless problems if the relationship is strained.

Agency staff work daily with the rules and the budgets. They know this stuff, which deserves your respect and appreciation.

Most elected bodies, whether local, state or federal, are made up of a mix of long-term members who have seen a few election turnovers and newbies coming in with a stack of ideas and programs they’re interested in promoting. The senior members sit back and wait for the newbie enthusiasm for re-inventing the wheel to subside, allowing the new members to settle into the reality of their agency’s structure.

The challenge for new officials is to learn to work within the system. It can be frustrating, because it seems at every turn, there’s some rule blocking progress. With persistence and study, you can learn how to work within your system, always keeping in mind that compromise will inevitably play a large part of reaching your goals.

One of the biggest frustrations is what feels like a deliberate effort by those who make the rules for local government officials to ensure the maximum amount of ignorance and the minimum amount of inter- and intra-organizational communication.

Since I’ve been on the city council, I’ve been advised against attending planning commission meetings lest I hear something there that could affect my vote, should a commission decision be appealed to the council. But I don’t even think appellate judges are prevented from hearing original testimony.

In the last few years, because of a few bad actors, the concern over a majority of members in an elective body conversing about a specific topic outside the meeting room has reached a degree of paranoia damaging not only the ability of governing groups to make well-discussed and informed decisions, but also their members’ ability to form comfortable, effective relationships with each other.

Recent rules defining and forbidding what are called “serial meetings” have limited the ability of local elected officials to discuss or communicate with each other. The idea was to prevent a majority of members on a city council or county commission from agreeing on an action or plan privately, that would then be voted on at a public meeting, which is definitely not a good situation.

As so often happens, concept and reality don’t quite mesh. Elected officials are so concerned about being slapped with a public meeting violation that the only time they are comfortable talking to each other is during a public meeting. Needed communication becomes constrained as a result.

Councilors, commissioners and other elected officials come with a variety of perspectives and broad array of experiences. If their conversations are limited to the restrictions applied during a formal meeting, they lose a vital element — the candid exchange of ideas and frank sharing of experience and opinions, which provides depth and perspective to the information they will rely on to make their decision. It’s not easy to have an in-depth discussion when the clock is ticking and half the room wants to just get on with the vote so everyone can go home.

Despite the frustrations, I love what I’m doing. So I’m looking forward to the next three-plus years.

I would strongly encourage anyone considering running for public office to do so. Just realize it’s not going to be a cakewalk.

Our government was never designed to be effortless. It was crafted to allow all of us to participate.

I know I’m not ready to “go home” yet ... and I hope that when I am, the folks I serve will be wishing I’d stay just a bit longer.


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