Swearing In..

16 square miles…and endless possibilities.

“Our finger prints don’t fade from the lives we touch”- Judy Blume

Tonight, two new commissioners Shirley Johnson and Jim Chard will be sworn in at Delray Beach City Hall after a short but grueling campaign.

The old joke is first you get sworn in and then you get sworn at—and there’s truth to that statement.

Serving in local office can be a contact sport.

Unlike state and federal offices—being a local elected official means you vote around the block from where you live and you do so in front of your neighbors. That’s the beauty and challenge of local government—ideally it should keep you grounded and hopefully accountable because unlike Washington and Tallahassee where you tend to vote with a team, far, far away from your constituents here at home you have to face your neighbors at the grocery store, soccer field and in the school pick-up line. That’s a good thing.

So what does it take to succeed?

In my book “Adventures in Local Politics” I mention 7 traits that leaders need in order to find success. They are: integrity, passion, emotional intelligence, vision, a thirst for knowledge, courage (because you will be tested) and judgment.

The rub is you need all 7 to succeed because if you are missing one, it will trip you up.

Think about it: Lack of integrity is a deal killer– you can be brilliant and charismatic but if you’re corrupt or fundamentally dishonest your toast.

You better have passion for your city and the people in it because if you aren’t genuine you’re going to fall short.

Passion is usually twinned with a thirst for knowledge—if you’re passionate you tend to want to learn all you can about the subject matter.

Courage is a must, because you won’t always be popular. As for judgment, that’s  something that gets measured over time.

While nobody bats .1000 you need to get most of the big decisions right or you won’t be fondly remembered. Judgment also means that you know how to prioritize—therefore you don’t major in the minor, you understand the job (where it begins and where it ends) and that you know who is real and who is playing you.

I think demeanor and tone is important as well. Your words matter. How you interact with people—and whether you interact with people–counts.

As noted before, you need to develop chemistry and trust with your team and your team is the staff at City Hall—especially your direct reports and you only have two—the City Manager and the City Attorney under our council/manager form of government.

While I’m a believer in accountability, I also believe that a supportive culture is what builds championship organizations. It’s hard to innovate when you’re being chased by a lion.

In other words, if your staff fears you, you won’t get their best efforts.

They should respect you and the sentiment should be mutual, but a fearful or bullied workforce won’t produce over the long haul. If your staff is reluctant to write a report or make recommendations because they fear getting shredded you have a problem because you’ll be surrounded by “yes men and women” and that’s how mistakes get made. That said you should feel free to respectfully challenge assumptions and encourage staff to justify their advice. But when they call the roll—it’s your vote and ultimate accountability resides with you, the elected official. It’s also important to make decisions–and not let issues linger for months or years. Former Mayor Tom Lynch gave me great advice when I was first elected: you have to make the best decisions you can, with the information you have at the time you are called upon to vote. Most mistakes aren’t fatal or final–but allowing issues to linger can be damaging. Vote and move on. Never make it personal–you’ll win some and lose others. Vote your conscience and explain why–most people will respect that.

Ideally, you want a team that will run through walls for you and for each other. That only comes with time and when you invest in relationships and when they know you have their backs as well. I will never understand elected officials who refuse to build relationships or those who think they have all the answers.

Serving a community you love is a rare honor.

There are 19,429 municipal governments in the United States. Many have three, five or seven elected officials meaning there are roughly 100,000 city elected officials at any given time out of a U.S. population of about 325 million.

As you can see, being a mayor and commissioner is a unique privilege. That’s why it’s important for elected officials to understand that it’s a job to do, not a job to have. And there’s a big difference.

In Delray, you are only guaranteed three years—and it flies by. Even if you get two terms, that’s only six years; a blur in the scheme of things. So you have to have a sense of urgency in order to make an impact.

We started this post with a joke about being sworn in and then sworn at. It’s true.

If you step into the public arena, you can count on meeting the critics in your community. Listen to them; they may have something to teach you. But there will come a time—hopefully early in your tenure when you’ll have to make a choice on who you hope to please because you will not be able to please everyone.

The elected officials who make a lasting impact and make a true difference are those who seek to serve the people in their communities who are hard at work building the community. The hard workers at City Hall, the men and women in your public safety departments, the community leaders and volunteers who are involved in schools, neighborhoods, children’s issues, charities, business, the arts and more.

When your time in office is over—those are the stakeholders that you will want to have helped. It’s about achieving their goals. Remember this is supposed to be about service to others.

The naysayers—here’s a prediction based on experience: you won’t be able to please them. And chances are that even if you do— on an issue or two— you’ll find that you won’t on something else and they’ll dump you.

But the community builders they are a different story; even if you differ with them on a few things. They’ll stick by you, because they know they can’t win them all and they are in it for the long haul.

Those are the people you want on your side. And ultimately their verdict will determine whether you succeed or fail. If you help them leave Delray a better place than when you found it, you will be a success. If you take the city backwards or dismantle the progress made by others you will fail.

It’s just that simple.

There are people who build things up and people who tear things down. Just remember whose side you’re on.


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