Effective Elected Officials

Those elected to serve on a public body have a tremendous responsibility to help resolve issues and improve their community. City council members and mayors have the ability to shape the future of their city. Having a good understanding of their role in the process can lead to an effective term.


  • Lead by example. Be honest, consistent and flexible. Don’t play games.
  • Use common sense.
  • Don’t be stampeded into action by the strong demands of special interest groups. Your job is to find the long-term public interest of the entire community.
  • Sometimes we underestimate the potential impact of an elected official’s leadership. Use the dignity of your office to help the community get past contentious issues.
  • There is a tremendous amount of discomfort in making very public decisions. It’s easy to fear the political consequences, but it is important to take a long-term approach, weigh everything and reach good decisions.
  • You won’t be able to satisfy all people, and you have to know that. Listen fairly, listen thoughtfully and then do what is right.

The Team Concept

  • Policy-making is a team activity. An individual council member only has power when the council gathers together as a group at an official council meeting. Each council member sees issues differently and has his/her own concerns. A majority vote is needed to accomplish anything.
  • City government is complicated. No city, however small, is so simplistic that one person can master every phase. Individual council members have no choice but to look to their colleagues for counsel and support.Teamwork is a natural and necessary part of serving on the council.
  • Teamwork does not mean that all council members need to agree on every issue or that they like each other on a personal basis. It does mean they must respect each other’s opinions and learn to deal with each other on the basis of mutual honesty. Don’t act rashly and assume that only you know the best way to accomplish things.
  • City staff members are an important part of the team. Get to know the staff and what they do. Treat them with respect –they are a valuable asset and can assist you in accomplishing your goals. They can have some valuable historical perspectives and help “fill in the gaps” for a new council member. Likewise, take advantage of your city attorney – the city attorney can help you avoid pitfalls that could end up being extremely detrimental to the city.

Goal Setting

  • Effective planning is essential to smooth operations in city government. The mayor and city council should take time to think about the future direction of the city.
  • The goal setting process establishes a basic framework for action. By setting goals and deciding which are most important, the council can define what the city will try to achieve over a given period of time. Without priorities the council is likely to find itself drifting from issue to issue, crisis to crisis.
  • Council goal setting is valuable for staff members. Council goals and priorities can provide direction to staff as to what the council is trying to accomplish. Without clearly defined goals, staff may get conflicting signals and not meet the council’s expectations.
  • Goal setting is essential to other important functions. Effective goal setting should be integrated into the city’s processes for developing the annual budget, capital improvements program and implementation of the comprehensive plan.
  • Goal setting can provide a useful evaluation tool. Once goals have been established, the city council will have a framework for determining how well the staff is doing in achieving priorities.

Stay Informed

  • Familiarize yourself on the issues and trends affecting municipal government. Some of the best training and education can be secured at programs offered by the Iowa League of Cities and its affiliated regional leagues and organizations.
  • Ask for help when you need it. Don’t be afraid to use outside resources (your city attorney, the League, Iowa State University Extension, a neighboring city).
  • Find an experienced mentor in city government. Ask for advice when you need help. You’ll get empathy and a clearer vision from someone who has been there.
  • Use information from the League and have staff conduct research through their professional organizations.Network with others. You will find that most city officials are very willing to share information and expertise. There are formal and informal networks among mayors, council members and staff. These networks can provide support and new ideas.

Other Suggestions from Veteran Elected Officials

  • Listen to everyone. Listen until your ears fall off. Soak it up. After six months in office, you will round out the picture of the complexities of city government and your role.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You are not expected to know all the answers immediately.
  • Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
  • Don’t make promises you can’t deliver. Most major decisions and actions require approval of the city council.
  • Gear your mind to process a tremendous amount of seemingly conflicting information.
  • Don’t enter office with an unmovable set agenda. Learn as much as you can before taking on a major program or effort.
  • Don’t be strangled by campaign promises that were made without sufficient information.
  • Acknowledge legal restrictions. Keep in mind that your city’s adopted ordinances must be followed until the council takes action to amend them. And that’s just the beginning – the number of federal and state laws and regulations that also govern your actions can be mind-boggling. If you are unsure of your responsibilities or authority in certain areas, be sure to seek clarification from your city attorney.
  • Take it slow. Resist the urge to recommend drastic changes in the organization before you know how it really works. While some methods may appear to need an immediate overhaul, it pays to observe before trying new methods. Give yourself at least six months to learn the fundamentals of city operations.

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