Tuesday, August 4, 2015

8 Tips for Voting in Municipal Elections

Around this time, I start getting calls from my neighbors and friends asking,

"Who should I vote for?"
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Why would people ask my opinion?

Because it's a municipal (city) election and voters usually don't know the candidates.  But they know I do, because I spent over a decade volunteering and serving in my local community.

I usually try to avoid answering the question. I believe each person should enter the poll booth ready to express their own opinion and not someone else's, but I do try to give them some tips to help them make their own decision.

Here they are in a nutshell.

Tip #1 Avoid candidates who run angry. 

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Local issues are emotional.  When I sat on the Planning Commission I saw many people approach the podium with shaking hands and trembling voices.  Decisions directly affect people's lives and livelihood.  I love seeing citizens become passionate, even angry, when they see something isn't right.

But that doesn't mean they should run.

Angry candidates typically do a great job of rallying support and votes, but are rarely effective in office.  Why?

Usually because of these two reasons.

1. Anger can cause us to hyperfocus on one issue, consequently we lose the big picture.   Voting as a city council member requires someone who can see an issue from all sides and parties involved.

2. Angry candidates have a lone-wolf mentality and usually end up insulting or alienating themselves from their future colleagues.  They only have one vote on the council.  Collaboration usually yields a higher success rate than competition.

Tip #2 Avoid candidates who run on a single issue.
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Sometimes candidates aren't necessarily angry, but they are bothered by something they see happening in the city.  They decide to run for city council to fix it.  I love it when people strive to be a part of the solution instead of complaining about the problem.

But that doesn't mean they should run. 

Single issue candidates tend to make a fatal mistake--running on a campaign promise.  This is deadly to a candidate, because they are making promises without information.  Fortunately, a city is not run by the council alone. Almost always cities also have a city manager, city engineer, city attorney, city finance director, and others who have dedicated their lives to public service by gaining education, certifications, trainings, and experience.  They don't tell a council how to vote, but they make presentations and offer counsel so that each member can make an informed decision.  This usually causes a newly elected official to face the reality of public service.

Tip # 3 Avoid candidates who are just getting started. 


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Community service tends to ebb and flow in an individual's life.  Sometimes we have time to help, other times we are too busy making ends meet and caring for our family and home.  I love it when I see someone decide that now is the time to get involved.

But that doesn't mean they should run.

When I first started volunteering my time with the city, I was in no position to be on the City Council.  I didn't know what I didn't know.  I had no idea what questions to ask.  As I attended more meetings, I began to see how things work and how things didn't work.  I developed relationships with both elected officials and staff.  I earned a reputation of being a critical thinker and a hard worker.

Before I was appointed to the City Council, I had served on several committees in different capacities.   When I submitted my application, I was no stranger to the council.  I had paid my dues.

Tip #4 Avoid candidates who wants to run the city like a business.


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Governments move slowly... on purpose. The sad result is that sometimes money gets wasted, time gets wasted, and resources gets wasted.  Successful business men and women see this happening and think, "My business would never survive if it ran like that.  I need to apply what I know in the business field to government administration."  I think it's great that people want to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the government.

But that doesn't mean they should run. 

Citizens are not customers.  Services are not products.   Businesses run with a different set of motives and incentives than a government does.  The budgets are different, the accounting is different, the rules are different.

When I took my government accounting class, my husband (who has his master's degree in accounting, is a CMA, and works as a CFO) was able to help with my homework the first 2 weeks when we learned basic accounting principles.  After that he said, "I can't help you, I have no idea what you are doing." Governments manage money differently.  Too often we expect them to apply household budget guidelines and business principles to their budgets.

I'm not saying governments do a great job managing their money, I'm just saying they have a different set of rules they must follow.

I'm also not trying to say that business professionals can't be good elected officials, they just need to know that they are in a different arena and the same rules don't apply.

To read more why a government can't run like a business, click here.  


Tip #5 Support a candidate who understands citizen participation. 
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When I was in graduate school studying public administration, I loved studying the topic of citizen participation.  This is a complicated topic and not as simple as it sounds.  When and how should citizens be involved in the process?  When should they be able to contribute? When should they just be informed?  The easiest answer to this question is, "It depends."

Candidates who understand how to communicate effectively with citizens make great elected officials.  

For more information on citizen participation, click here and here.

Tip #6 Support a candidate who listens patiently and effectively.

Having sat through several city meetings, I've learned that rarely do people attend a city meeting when they are neutral on a topic.  (Except maybe boy scouts earning their Citizenship in the Community merit badge.)  People come because they have an opinion and are usually passionate about what they want to say.

On several occasions I've seen citizens forget their name or their address, or both.  Why?  It's because they are uncomfortable and nervous.  They need someone who can diplomatically help them feel comfortable without revealing their own personal opinion.  Everyone deserves a voice.  Too often I see those "behind the desk" try to put words in the citizen's mouth, or worse, try to get the citizen to stop talking because they think he or she is misinformed and wrong.

Candidates who can listen to citizens patiently and effectively make great elected officials. 

Tip # 7 Support a candidate who can ask the right questions. 
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Like I said before, when I began volunteering for the community, I didn't even know what I didn't know.  I remember the Chair of the Arts Commission asking me if I had any questions as the meeting was wrapping up.  Um... no.  I was clueless.  But a year later, I was the Chair asking the questions and running the meeting.

Council members need to be critical thinkers, able to deduce, infer, and reason.  They need to come to the meeting informed and educated on the issue, but still willing to hear both sides and be able to be persuaded.  (If not, then why bother giving the public a chance to speak?)  I have seen a single, thoughtful question change how a council votes.

Candidates who can ask the right questions and think critically make great elected officials. 

Tip #8 Do your research. 


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At this point you are probably thinking,

"No one running for office in my community is all of these things. I have no one to vote for!"

No candidate is perfect; however, some are more likely to earn your respect than others.  The burden is on you to find out who.

Before an election, as voters, we need to do our part to find out which candidates we feel comfortable supporting.  A wonderful aspect to municipal elections is how accessible the candidates are.  Here are some tips to get to know your candidates better:


  • Attend a debate.  
  • Attend meet and greets.
  • Attend cottage meetings. 
  • Contact the candidates by phone or email with questions. 
  • Visit the candidates' websites. 
If you don't know what to ask, here are some suggested questions to get sense of who the candidate is:


  • What made you decide to run?  
    • This might reveal if they are an angry or single-issue candidate.
  • In what ways have you been involved with the city up to this point?
    • Don't count community service (church, sports, scouts, clubs), look for actual service within city government. 
  • Have you held any positions where you had to be appointed by the city council and mayor?
    • This will show that they are known and supported within the city. 
  • What strategies do you use to make a difficult decision?
    • Look for answers that show critical thinking, like defining the correct problem, weighing competing objectives, understanding consequences, risk analysis, etc.
  • What role do you think citizens should play in government?
    • Look for realistic answers.  Many citizens are happily unaware of the city government and busy with their day-to-day lives.  This isn't necessarily a bad or good thing, but just how it is. 
  • What do you hope to accomplish in the first 100 days in office?
    • Again, look for realistic answers.  Hopefully their goal is to learn, study, and get to know their colleagues.  The learning curve is huge for a newly elected official, do they recognize that?
  • What would you say to someone who doesn't agree with your position on ________.
    • Look for someone who can clearly and respectfully articulate an opposing viewpoint.  This will reveal how they will treat citizens who disagree with them.  


Maybe you are thinking, "I don't have time to do that, I'm too busy."  Think of it this way.  Would you rather spend a few hours now getting to know the candidates, or several hours later in a long, drawn-out public hearing because you don't like what your representatives are doing?

Let me end with a quick story.

Years ago, a city council candidate was running for re-election.  He asked me to send out 150 letters endorsing him as a candidate.  He and another candidate were tied after the election.  After two recounts, he won the election by 3 votes.  Three votes!


http://www.utahcountyonline.org/apps/WebLink/Dept/CLERKAUD/PleasantGrove09.pdf

In no other election does your vote count more than in your own city.

So vote.
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About the author:

Heather Ruth Pack received her master's degree in public administration at Brigham Young University in 2010 specializing in nonprofit finance.  She is the recipient of the 2007 Pleasant Grove Community Service Award.  She chaired the Pleasant Grove Arts Commission, Heritage Festival Committee, and was PTA President of her children's elementary school.  Additionally, she has served on the Friends of the Pleasant Grove Library, Planning Commission, R/UDAT Advisory Committee, Downtown Council, and as an appointed member of the City Council.  

Heather is a published author, wife to A Certain Englishman, and mother of five patient children.