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Director's Message - Good Governance Virginia Town & City

Magazine of the Virginia Municipal League - Vol. 52 No.9 Nov 2017

By Michelle Gowdy, Acting Executive Director and General Counsel

As general counsel, I get a lot of calls on good governance and how to deal with difficult

situations amongst council members. Often council members are frustrated with each other and lose sight of the common goal - doing what is in the best interest of your citizens in a transparent manner. Competing views on a council can be extremely healthy because they challenge all to think harder and consider options that may not include the outcome expected. The problem emerges when those issues become barriers to doing what is in the best interest of your citizens.

Bridge Littleton (right), Middleburg council member, and VML Acting Director Michelle Gowdy (center) visited Mayor Robert Zoldos and the council of the

Town of Lovettsville in early November.

Stepping back when that occurs and looking at the process of decision-making may help to reach consensus or professional disagreement. There are times when inaction because of a disagreement is the hardest, but best, decision of all. Deciding that there is no good resolution is okay.

Reviewing the roles of the mayor, council and the manager can be beneficial and remind us that council members don’t function without each other. No one member has any real authority unless the governing body has authorized an action. When looking at how various local roles are defined, and the authority given various players, generally several documents have to be consulted, including the charter, local ordinances and state law. It is also important to think about how these roles work in real life interactions. For example; how is an item added to the agenda: does the mayor decide, the manager or can any council member add an item? What happens when the council doesn’t agree to add an item? Or what happens when a council member demands information from the clerk that the entire council is not privy to?

This is when I will put in a plug for a code of ethics, a manual of rules for governance and a professional understanding of respecting the roles of each person in your local government. A code of ethics is a document that really should be reviewed and signed yearly by the council members and that morally obligates them to behave in a professional and polite manner so that there is no question about their integrity. This document reminds council members about that moral obligation.

In addition to addressing the roles of council members, codes of ethics often will have rules on when and how long public comment occurs and how to make a proper motion; these rules should be documented and provided to each council member, as well as reviewed yearly. The other yearly activity for councils is to set out goals for the council, mayor and the manager so that everyone understands the direction of the locality and can work towards those goals. They can be extremely specific such as: our town hall will be renovated this year or broader – the council will work to improve relations with the county. By setting goals each year, progress can be measured, and the citizens have a clear understanding of the council’s direction.

This column on governance was triggered in part by a recent trip to Lovettsville. VML has two new Executive Committee members: Bridge Littleton from the Town of Middleburg and Shannon Kane from the City of Virginia Beach. We are very pleased to have them on our Executive Committee.

Mr. Littleton was kind enough to accompany me to the Town of Lovettsville in early November to talk about good governance (and I snuck some Freedom of Information/ Conflict of Information (FOIA/COIA) stuff in too!). It was a good interactive discussion with a lot of questions and sharing of experiences. We reviewed their roles as outlined in their charter and the state/local codes and then discussed practically how to work with each other. Mr. Littleton shared his experience as a previous member of the planning commission and current council, which offered prospective from a nearby town. Lovettsville officials shared stories of programs that worked for them as well and we all took ideas back to share with others.

The FOIA/COIA reminder is two-fold. First, remember that the transaction of public business should take place in the public eye unless there is a specific reason in the Virginia Code to act in closed session. Second, when you believe that you have a conflict, it is best to consult your local attorney and heed their advice!!

I was excited and energized by the discussion that took place and enjoyed the sharing of various programs and ideas that we had as well as the willingness on everyone’s part to try new things. Thanks to Mr. Littleton and the Town of Lovettsville for this experience!

By Michelle Gowdy, Acting Executive Director and General Counsel

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