Words of Advice for New Board Members
(from Maine Townsman, April 1995)
By Jo Josephson
AUTHOR'S NOTE: There appeared to be an unusually high turnover of selectmen throughout the state during March elections, especially among those who have served many terms.
With their departure goes a lot of wisdom, especially the kind that can't be gotten from books. Like how to deal with differences of opinion on the board, how to deal with complaints from citizens. And most important, how to have fun with the most difficult but poorest paying job you'll ever have.
As such, the TOWNSMAN decided to contact a number of the so-called selectman veterans and to ask them to share some of that wisdom. Together they represent 64 years of experience on the boards of selectmen. Plus, some comments from a veteran manager:
What follows is an attempt to weave all of their advice into a piece of whole cloth.
IT'S NOT ABOUT POWER . . .
"It's not about power; it's about paperwork and listening to complaints about potholes," says David Martucci. "The job entails a lot more drudgery than you might think it does," he adds.
Martucci, who just lost his bid for a fourth term on the board of selectmen in Washington, advises newcomers to "check their political baggage at the door, hang up the axe they've been grinding, and to learn to be an administrator."
"Few people who run for a seat on the board ever see the job as an administrative one; but that's basically what it is," says Martucci. "So you'd better start paying attention to paperwork and detail and you'd better start developing people skills," says Martucci, who admits having conducted an issue-oriented campaign in his run for his first term on the board.
Ruth Ham, who has served 18 years on the board in Shapleigh, agrees with Martucci. She says she is continually surprised when people ask her how it feels "to be in politics." As Ham sees it, she's "into serving the 2,000 people in her community."
It's about work and long hours and putting out brush fires, says Mercer's Dennis Culley, who has just stepped down after seven intense terms on the board. "While it's important to have a grand agenda, the reality is you will spend a lot of time putting out brush fires," says Culley. "Opinion matters much less in this job that you think it does. What matters is the work and can you get it done," he says.
That said, does Culley agree with Martucci's administrative model? "It's more like being an "indoor dog catcher," says Culley. Which is to say, "you may have a prescribed job, but you have no regular hours and you never know where the work is. And unlike any other job you might ever hold, this one is not about money, glory or your future, it's about serving the greater good of the community," says Culley.
YOUR AUTHORITY IS COLLECTIVE
Administrator. Indoor dog catcher. Whatever. In no way are you operating alone in the job, stress all those who were contacted for this article.
"While your responsibility may be individual, your authority is collective," says Culley. He advises new members to "always speak in terms of "the board," such as "The board decided to." in order to take the spotlight off of themselves. "But remember," says Culley, "you can only Speak for the board, when the board has spoken."
"I am one of a board of three" is how Ham prefaces everything she says. "As an individual, I have no authority; I'm just one person; I'm just an individual member of that board and cannot promise anything on behalf of the board," says Ham.
THE MAJORITY PREVAILS
Culley points out a simple, oft overlooked, fact that all boards are made up of an odd number of members--generally three or five--so that when a vote is taken, one opinion--that of the majority--prevails.
"We rely on the vote, so that our differences of opinion can be put to rest," says Culley, who sees the process of voting as a "liberating" one, ending discussion and dissension.
Ham echoes Culley saying, "Once a vote is taken, everyone, dissenters included, should stand behind the decision." Or as she likes to state, "The decision ends the discussion."
On this issue, Martucci likes to quote Thomas Jefferson to the effect that a majority vote, even if it is only a majority of one, should be treated as if it were a unanimous vote.
DON'T COMPETE WITH YOUR COLLEAGUES
"It's like being inducted into a tribe; it's like being in a group marriage," says Culley, describing the relationship of the individual to the rest of the board members. "You may have your spats, but you still have to live with each other; you have to have a working relationship with the rest of the board."
"Because if you don't work together, if you each go your separate way, with each of you doing your own thing, you will become like a dysfunctional family, unable to accomplish anything," says Ham.
If a citizen comes to you complaining of another member of the board, don't side with them; say you will look into the issue. "Think of the other members of the board as your business colleagues, not as your competitors," says Topsham Manager Larry Cilley.
From his years of observing boards in action, Cilley says eager beavers, especially those who are full of surprises, trying to score against their colleagues, don't do well; in fact, they annoy and after a while are not taken seriously.
Echoing Cilley, it is Culley's belief that "your enemy is rarely anyone on the board; more likely it is a supplier or the state and one of its regulatory agencies."
HAVE COURAGE: DON'T FLIP-FLOP
"Have courage. If you have a conviction about something, speak it and stick by it. Don't weasel and waffle. Don't be a fence-sitter. You want to be viewed as a statesman, not a politician," says Cilley.
"New board members often want to be popular with everyone and that is just not possible," says Monroe's Barry Hodge, who has just completed his sixth year on the board. "You have to take a stand and stick by it. Don't flip-flop; if you keep changing your mind, people will lose their confidence in you," he says.
"Remember, the people had enough confidence in you to elect you in the first place, so act professionally and do what you believe is right," says Hodge.
BE OPEN, BUT READY TO CHALLENGE
"Be open and willing to learn. Check your preconceived notions at the door. Seek to understand why things are done the way they are done before jumping in to change them," says Ham.
"There may be good reasons why some things are done the way they are. You might have to do some back-pedaling," says Ruth Marden of Strong, who is completing her eighth year on the board. "But then again you might not. Which is to say, you shouldn't go along with things just because that's how things have always been done," says Marden.
"Let tradition fly in the wind, if you are right and tradition is wrong; what has been done in the past does not necessarily reflect what should be done now," says Marden.
"If minutes have not been kept in the past, if meetings were not held when scheduled, if assessing was a guesswork, if private driveways were plowed, it doesn't mean those actions were right or that the best interests of the community were being served," says Marden.
"If it is an uphill battle to get it done right, be prepared for the climb," says Marden.
HUMOR GOES A LONG WAY
"Keep your sense of humor; if you don't, you are dead in the water," says Hodge. "Light-hearted bantering and quipping during meetings is good for what ails," says Cilley.
"Do what is right, but try to have fun. Remember, what is happening here is not the end of the world. The minute you start dreading the work, you might as well resign," says Hodge.
"Do not be afraid to ask questions. You are not expected to know all the answers in your first year," says Woolwich's Crispin Connery, who is now into his 12th year on the board. "So enjoy the learning experience," says Connery; but "don't use your newness as a dodge," adds Culley.
"And be prepared to be the person most often called. Since you are new, folks see you as a means for trying to get certain things done that cannot be done," says Connery.
Don't be impatient, it will take time to understand and learn the municipal calendar--the schedule that tells you what has to be done during the year, from sending out the tax bills to committing the taxes, to closing roads to winter maintenance, advises Connery.
Above all, don't feel you have to be quick on decisions. Do your homework, talk to people, and take your time in making decisions, advises Marden. Seek advice and information from a wide variety of sources, including your elders, especially your elders. Whatever you do, don't ignore them, says Cilley.
"They have the institutional history; they've seen it all before," Culley reminds us. "And while you are at it, read old town reports, and check with the tax collector and treasurer," says Culley, adding, "there is a lot you can learn from the past."
Elders and in-house staff aside, all contacted for this article concurred that when in doubt, consult with the legal staff at the MMA, either by phone or mail. Nothing wins an argument more quickly than being able to say, "according to MMA's attorneys."
SPEAK UP ON THE BROADER ISSUES
"Don't view your town as a singular feudal state and then get worked up when something is handed down to you from on high," says Connery, advising newcomers to get involved with the legislative process at least at the state level.
"Start by reading MMA's weekly bulletin when the State Legislature is in session; it tells you what bills are being proposed that could ultimately affect local government and the people you serve. Then consider attending a legislative hearing on one of those bills and speaking for or against it," suggests Connery.
"Remember, small towns don't have much clout unless they join together with other small towns," says Hodge, who picked up the name of "refusenick" when a few years ago he and selectmen from other towns successfully fought rising tipping fees at a waste-to-energy facility.
"If you organize, you have a reasonable chance of being heard," says Hodge, adding, "but be sure to leave your egos at the door, when you are working in a group."
UNDERSTAND THE RIGHT-TO-KNOW LAW
Connery strongly advises new board members to read and understand the Right-to-Know Law, a.k.a., the Freedom of Information Act.
"It will be the major tool that will help you navigate through the public process," says Connery.
Be it a public hearing, or a public meeting, or a selectmen's meeting, or dealing with the press, or requests by the public or press for records, you will need to understand and be guided by this law, which, among other things is a focal point of MMA's Elected Officials Workshops.
"Remember, communication is what open and good government is all about," says Connery, who advises board members to be "forth-right and honest with the press."
Who Will You Be?
Roles that help maintain the group's relationships:
Harmonizer (joker or soother): Attempts to reconcile disagreements, reduces tension, gets members to explore differences.
Gatekeeper: Helps keep communication channels open, encourages everyone to participate.
Supporter: Exudes friendliness, warmth, and responsiveness to others, acknowledges and accepts others' contributions.
Compromiser: Offers compromise, yields personal status, admits error or modifies position in interest of maintaining group cohesion.
Standards monitor: Tests whether group is satisfied with the way it is proceeding.
Roles that hinder the group's tasks or relationships:
There are a variety of self-oriented behaviors. Some may be tolerated or ignored, while others may prove to be extremely annoying to other members, hinder group functioning, and need to be addressed. Examples are:
Late arriver or early leaver: Interferes with the work of the group.
Dominator/know it all: Doesn't allow for input by a variety of group members. Stifles individuals who are quieter or slower to put thoughts into words.
Nay sayers ("It'll never work."): Dampens the energy of the group.
Side conversationalist: Undermines whoever has the floor.
Interpreter ("Allow me to tell you what Shirley is trying to say .."): Demeans the person attempting to express herself.
Backseat driver ("I would have done it this way"): Can be a put down of group members who have done a particular task.
Acknowledgement: Material is part of MMA 's Governing Skills Project developed for MMA by Dee Kelsey and Associates. Adapted from materials by Eleanor Seager, Training and Development, Maine Medical Center.