Friday, February 5, 2016

Welcome to Local Government! 5 Ways to Be a Successful Elected Official

By Dave Bartholomay

[Dave Bartholomay has been mayor of Circle Pines for 10 years, and served a four-year term as a council member prior to that. Do you have a city story to tell? Submit your idea to]

Each January brings a new crop of mayors and city council members into government service. I myself was recently sworn in again as mayor of Circle Pines and have had a chance to reflect on my past 14 years as an elected official. Here are five things that my experience has taught me about how to be successful as an elected official:

1.)    First, appreciate that being an elected official is a tremendous opportunity to serve your friends and neighbors while always working to improve your community. Live by the Rotary Club slogan: “Service before Self.”  This is less about your grand ideas and big promises, and more about finding ways to work well with others to improve your community, in often small and steady ways. Remember that compromise is not a four-letter word.

2.)    Here's a big surprise: being an elected official is really not all about you and it is certainly not about you being the loudest or being the biggest bully. Rather, it is about focusing on how you can best serve everyone in your community, not just those who supported your candidacy. Local government has a lot of moving pieces and you will find yourself always learning in this job. Good ideas can come from all sorts of places, including your 'opponents'.

3.)    Always work hard to be transparent and open, honest, and authentic.  The public wants to understand what is happening in their community, as well as what you are doing with their money and with the power and responsibility that they bestowed on you.

4.)    Be optimistic and ask good questions to bring issues out into the light of day. Residents watch council meetings hoping to learn from your discussions; don't embarrass your community through outrageous words and behavior. Focus on being civil in your discussions and be measured in your public comments. Be cautious about what you say and how you say it, leaving the door open for more dialogue in the future.

5.)    Work with and trust the city staff. I strongly believe all communication from an elected official to city staff should go through the city administrator, who is usually the only person directly hired and supervised by the city council. Don’t forget that elected officials are supposed to stay up at the ‘policy’ level and not micromanage at the ‘operations’ level.

Being an elected or appointed official is really quite an honor. Your job is to get out and about, gathering ideas and being a positive force as you try to improve your community. Treat your position with dignity and respect, and I've found that you will be appreciated for your hard work (even by those who didn't vote for you!).

A version of this post was originally printed in the Quad Community Press on Dec. 1, 2015.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

What Makes 'Crystal Waters' Sparkle? Future City Competition 2016

From mating meal worms to llama-themed installation art, hundreds of students who gathered recently at Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis for the Minnesota Regional Future City Competition sure had some creative ideas for making the cities of the future great.

Teams of middle-school students from all over the state work throughout the fall semester to develop city dioramas and presentations in preparation for the annual competition.

League staff were present once again to judge the "Building Quality Communities" special award. This award is given to the team that best demonstrates how a city government can improve the quality of life for its citizens. This may include the ways that city leaders include others in making decisions or the policies and services that make citizens' daily lives easier and more meaningful.

All-in-all, a total of 15 special awards and three general awards were presented at the event.

Our pick

The "Crystal Waters" team from Valley Middle School
of STEM in Apple Valley took home the "Building Quality
Communities" award at the 2016 Future City
Regional Competition.
It was a difficult choice this year, but the recipient of the Building Quality Communities award is "Crystal Waters," the vision of a student team from Valley Middle School of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District.

Students integrate things like zoning, public safety services,
and green space into their designs.

What made Crystal Waters sparkle? Students emphasized that their city hall was intended to host community meetings and include residents in the transparent process of government. They recognized that the city makes important financial decisions that determine which innovative projects to invest in. Crystal Waters also provides access to basic health information through "digital first aid kit" stations located throughout the city. Nice job, students!

How they do it
Early in the school year, students learn about planning a city and flex their knowledge using Sim City to design their own model city. Then they write an essay describing the systems, amenities, and solutions their design incorporates.

Alternative forms of energy, including wind and solar,
make an appearance in Crystal Waters, too.
Important questions student may ask themselves during this process include:

  • Where is my city located? Space? The ruins of a modern-day metropolis? A volcano-turned island? The sky is (literally) the limit.
  • What kind of transportation do citizens have access to? Solar cars? Monorails? Gondolas in the mountain air?
  • How does my city manage waste? Where do I locate the recycling plant? What can my city reuse?
The League congratulates all 2016 general award and special award winners from the region. We're already looking forward to what we'll learn from students next year!

See recaps of past Future City Regional Finals and the Building Quality Communities Award winners:

Future City 2015 and the Building Quality Communities Award

Cities of the Future as Imagined by Students of Today (2014)


Friday, January 29, 2016

Spotted: City Officials Get a Great Start to the Year at the 2016 Leadership Conferences

Peter Kageyama shares stories from lovable communities
he's visited across the country.
"Let's build cities that grab people by the heart and never let go!" That was the closing advice of speaker Peter Kageyama at the 2016 Experienced Officials Leadership Conference. Peter is the author of For the Love of Cities: The Love Affair Between People and Their Places and the follow up, Love Where You Live: Creating Emotionally Engaging Places.

More than 100 local elected officials from across the state came together to learn about creative place making and how to empower co-creators in their communities to build more emotionally engaging cities.

Experienced city officials got creative as they
brainstormed ways to build community during
the $500 challenge.
During the conference, officials were invited to share their own stories of how they were creating unique and engaging communities. Councilmember Harley Droba explained how the Icebox of the Nation, International Falls, is sharing its stories with the world through Icebox Radio Theater. Mayor Jo Emerson shared how White Bear Lake celebrated setting a world record for the longest sundae.

Kageyama also asked officials take part in the $500 Challenge. Participants brainstormed fun, affordable ways to build lovable communities, including a black light skate night, movies in the park, stand still parade, “decorate a lamp post” contest, and many more.

Peter Kageyama will be back in Minnesota this summer as a Senior Fellow at the Annual Conference in St. Paul June 14 - 17.

Newly elected officials learned about tools that will help
them have a great start in their new role!
While experienced officials were discovering tips for creating lovable cities, 40 city officials participated in the Newly Elected Officials Leadership Conference, including two councilmembers from Minnesota's newest city, Rice Lake. These new mayors and councilmembers learned the nuts and bolts of municipal law and finance, and the importance of having a vision, working well with colleagues and staff, engaging the public, and keeping a civil tone at city hall.

Did you attend one of the Leadership Conferences? Share your highlights in the comments below!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Spotted: The Work Comp Cash Cab

Sure, it's possible to move through a work day without a clear understanding of what other departments do, what other people's job descriptions are, or even their names. But why would you want to?

League and Insurance Trust staff periodically gather for "Department Presentations" to learn more about the important work being done by staff in other parts of the building—to put faces to names and create a more holistic understanding of the League's mission and services among staff.

Most recently, the copy center, loss control, and  workers' compensation claims departments presented on how they spend their hours on the clock. To keep it interesting, the workers' comp claims team incorporated a variation of the television quiz show "Cash Cab" and invited staffers Michael DeMorrow and Executive Director David Unmacht along for the ride.

Photo credit goes to LMC HR Director Laura Kushner

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Colorful Nicknames—Who Is the City Attorney?

By Korine Land
[Kori is an attorney with the firm Levander, Gillen & Miller. She serves as attorney for the cities of Cottage Grove, Randolph, West St. Paul, and South St. Paul, as well as several JPA entities. Do you have a city story to tell? Submit your idea to]

Kori Land is city attorney for Cottage Grove,
Randolph, West St. Paul, and South St. Paul.
 As a city attorney, who am I? “Naysayer,” “Buzz Kill,” “Wet Blanket,” “Party-Pooper.” These are names I have been called in my role as counselor to cities. I prefer to think of myself with titles such as “Reasonable,” “Forward-Thinking,” and “Protective.”

As the League reminds us, city attorneys represent neither the city staff nor the city council. We represent the city. Sometimes our “client” needs protection from the city staff and the council.

The role of the city attorney is both reactive and proactive. We are here to guide cities in matters that suddenly appear (the police K-9 just bit a resident in a park while “off-duty;” the community development director went to a foreclosure sale while you were on vacation and bought a bowling alley) and to be thinking about how to protect the city in the future (drafting an ordinance on e-cigarettes or medical marijuana).

We have prepared ordinances prohibiting circuses and carnivals. We have prepared ordinances both enacting and then repealing the requirement that 10 percent of the charitable gambling proceeds be given to the city. We have reviewed memoranda of understanding that preserve the ability of cities to do something in the future but bind them to absolutely nothing today.

We respond within minutes, hours, days, or months to cities’ requests for review, research, reactions, comments, ordinances, and cover memos. We answer our cell phones on nights, weekends, and early mornings to discuss bail recommendations, emergency press releases, the gift law, or that nuisance property with graffiti. Cities’ needs are complicated (a hazardous building process); their needs are simple (tell the resident the city is not going to cut down his neighbor’s tree). The answer is not always as positive as the city would prefer, but it is thoughtful and it is usually—yes—overly cautious. But that’s ok! Remember that our role is to keep cities out of trouble. So, as a result, we can sound kind of negative, thus resulting in the names mentioned above.

For now, I would like to just keep the nameplate I have, which is “city attorney.” The councils can attach their own colorful nicknames as they see fit.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The January-February 2016 Issue of Minnesota Cities Magazine is Online Now!

The latest issue of Minnesota Cities magazine mailed this week and is now available online! The first issue of 2016 is full of info and great city stories to inspire and motivate you during these cold mid-winter weeks.

Some of the highlights:

They're here! The winning entries of the 2015 Mayor for a Day essay contest have been announced. From breakfast meet-and-greets to fostering cultural awareness, the leaders of the future share what they would do to encourage citizen engagement. Check out LMC’s ‘Mayor for a Day’ Essay Contest Winners to see who's running for your office in about 20 years.

Several ongoing debates at the Capitol will have big implications for Minnesota cities not just in 2016 but for years to come. Brush up on where issues like transportation and tax exemptions stand  in "2016 Legislative Session: Taking Care of Unfinished Business."

Collaboration may be a buzzword—but does it really work? See how the city of Paynesville and their important township and county partners made the near-impossible happen in "Happy Trails—Paynesville Brings 30-Year Vision to Life." Want more city success stories? See how the city of Crystal corrected course when a development project took an unsuspected turn in "Redevelopment: Four Stages of Resident Communication."

And as always, check out From the Bench for summaries of recent court cases, St. Paul to City Hall for an important message from Executive Director David Unmacht, and Bits & Briefs for a roundup of city conversation-starters.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Newly Elected Officials: Welcome to Office! Now What?

Know a newly elected city official? Chances are, as they settle into office, they’ll have tons of questions about how things are supposed to be. Elected officials are expected to know how their city runs right awayeverything from legal requirements to Open Meeting Law, financial responsibilities, and more.

The League’s 2016 Leadership Conference is just the place to help elected officials, as one past attendee put it, “get a grasp on how everything works.”

More experienced elected officials are also welcome to attendeveryone needs a refresher once in a while, right?

Here’s what attendees of the 2015 Leadership Conference had to say:

“I learned a lot about how the budget works, how property tax is figured to include who actually pays what portions, how assessments are determined and how levies work. There was a lot to understand, but the presenter was very good at ‘stating it in English'.”

“I found out it's important to be transparent with decision making and ensure that any possible legal issues are clearly defined and resolved. Our major responsibility is to ensure that we do not place the city in a position of legal liability.”

“Sustainability is critical when making all finance decisions. We must set goals, know what our resources are for reaching those goals, understand the difference between wants and needs, and set our priorities to ensure sustainability and growth at the same time.”

“I now know the rules and definitions about property values, how commercial, residential, and farm affect the funding pie.”

“I learned what about the common shortcomings of not knowing the rules and, legally, the best practices to initiate meetings, conversation, and, generally, conducting yourself in public.”

Register by January 19 for the 2016 Leadership Conference and get a great start in your new city leadership role!