Tips for neophytes heading into their first public office

November 18, 2012 

Over the next few days, two new Manatee County commissioners and a school board member will be sworn into office. Here are some suggestions for these and other newly elected public officials about to enter their first term in office.

n Attend a seminar on Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine law and learn about open public records and meetings. The rules forbid two or more members of the same board to discuss official matters in private. There are plenty of pitfalls. Don't text message a fellow board member about official business or discuss same in a social setting -- even at a party at someone's home. Phone cameras take video and record sound.

As a member of the First Amendment Foundation's Sunshine Brigade, new school board member Dave "Watchdog" Miner could teach this seminar.

n Maintain civility at all times. We encourage true debate that works out disagreements to find solutions. Nothing spoils a good government meeting like bad behavior -- like bickering with fellow board members, interrupting anyone at any time, leaving the dais during public comments (an insult to the people you represent).

n Don't underestimate the value of teamwork and consensus building. We have right here in River City a prime example of an elected board that is now being trained in that art after many months of infighting.

n Listen to legal advice on all matters. You might feel compelled to approve something that will ultimately bounce back and hit you in the face -- like infringing on personal property rights and state law just because you personally oppose a certain type of development or want to side with constituents.

n Never use your official title and position to gain favors or any special treatment. When pulled over by a law enforcement officer for a traffic offense, remain calm and don't blurt out your official status as if seeking a break on a ticket. That's poor form bound to come back and haunt a re-election bid.

n Don't ever ask any of the government employees under your influence to perform personal favors. Like sandbagging your home in advance of a severe storm. Or copying your lesson plans for the kids you teach. This, too, will backfire and possibly derail a political career.

n Keep your emotions under control and remain stoic about personal comments directed your way. People lash out when they can't get their way, but don't respond in kind. Think like a godfather: It's not personal, it's business.

n Understand your role in government. For most positions, the focus is solely on policy -- and not micromanaging government employees or departments. That includes going around the executive in charge of those workers and making demands.

n Read, read, read. Become intimately familiar with issues so you can act from a position of strength and knowledge. At the same time, don't fear saying "I don't know." And ask questions.

n Respect everyone in order to build strong working relationships. Show your appreciation to staff. And remember the old rule, "Praise in public, criticize in private."

n Boards, councils and commissions should speak as a group by supporting decisions. Once the debate is over and the vote taken, the best course of action is unity -- even though you don't like the decision.

n And work with the media. We're not the enemy, we only want to inform the public. Which circles us back to Government-in-the-Sunshine.

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