Several local government officials have recently described to us situations where elected officials are criticizing and attacking the staff during public meetings. This must not happen. Councilmembers and board members must respect the role of the administrative head of the organization (mayor, city manager, general manager, etc.). They may not criticize the staff in public.
Electeds are not in charge of administration
Legally there is a key distinction between the elected officials who set the policy for a public organization, and the official who is in charge of its functioning. In some cities, a “strong mayor” plays this role. In others it is a “city manager.” Public utility districts will have a “general manager.” Whatever the title, it is that individual who is responsible for the work of the staff.
Elected officials who have concerns must address their criticisms or questions to this administrative head in private. That person will then take the matter on board, and respond in due course. When a councilmember attacks a staff member in public, they are violating the legal boundaries. Such actions also amount to bullying, since elected officials and staff are in an unequal power relationship. Staff are not in a position to answer back.
“Gotcha” questions are destructive
Sometimes, if an elected official is not satisfied with the work of the staff, they will try to catch the staff out during presentations with “gotcha” questions. This is not healthy. We recommend that everyone take the time to actually read the agenda packet before the meeting, and put questions to the staff in advance. This will allow for a full response during the meeting. It will advance the work of the body, rather than wasting time in recriminations.
Include language about council-staff relations in your rules
It’s very helpful to include language pertaining to council-staff relations in your body’s Rules of Procedure. Here are two examples:
Except for participation in Board deliberation about whether a reasonable interpretation of Board policy has been achieved by the CEO/General Manager, members will not make express individual judgments of either CEO/General Manager or other employees’ performance. Snohomish Public Utility District #1
Refrain from publicly criticizing an individual employee. Criticism is differentiated from questioning facts or the opinion of staff. All critical comments about staff performance should be made only to the City Manager through private correspondence or conversation. Sometimes staff may make recommendations that may be unpopular with the public and Councilmembers. When this occurs, please refrain from attacking the messenger. City of Mercer Island, Washington
Stop attacks on staff immediately
If this kind of incident occurs at your meeting, the chair (mayor, president, etc.) must immediately put a firm stop to it. If the councilmember persists in the inappropriate remarks, the chair should turn to the group to decide.
- Councilmember: I’m really dissatisfied with our staff. I think that the planning department is in cahoots with the developers. They all ought to be fired!
- Chair: The Councilmember is reminded that under our Rules of Procedure, remarks of this type are not allowed. Concerns about staff performance must be directed privately to the City Manager. Kindly refrain from these comments.
- Councilmember: Oh, that’s just a bunch of baloney. I can say what I like at council meetings, and you can’t stop me! I repeat, they’re all on the take.
- Chair: The chair will ask the Council to decide this matter. In the chair’s view, these remarks are not appropriate. All those who agree, say “aye.”
- Councilmembers in favor: Aye!
- Chair: All those who disagree, say “no.”
- Councilmembers opposed: No!
- Chair: The “ayes” have it, and the Councilmember may not continue with these remarks, OR The “noes” have it, and the Councilmember may continue.
Read more in this article, Successful staff interaction in local government meetings. Do you have ideas on this topic? Write to us here!