I recently participated in a panel discussion at the League of Minnesota Cities’ annual conference for newly elected officials and experienced elected officials, in Brooklyn Center. This annual conference is a key learning opportunity for elected officials from cities all around Minnesota. It covers much of the ground concerning the responsibilities as well as the dos and don’ts of being a city council office holder and also features discussions about how to serve the public in the best possible way. Much of this year’s conference was focused on effective communication be-tween city council members, between council members and their city’s staff and communications with the public that city council members serve.
The panel I served on was focused on communication with the public, working with the media and making sure that all communications were informative, accurate and helpful, whether they were sent to news media sources or to individual citizens. I was joined by the communications director of the suburban city of Plymouth, an expanding city of more than 70,000 residents and also one of the principals of Goff Public, a consulting and advisory firm that assists in handling all sorts of communications and information for government and businesses.
Suffice it to say, these folks are much more adept at these matters than myself. However, I was able to bring to the discussion some practical background based mostly on our own experiences here in Granite and in our part of the state. It was a lively discussion and there were excellent questions and comments from the audience of more than 300 city council members and mayors.
The world of local media continues to evolve. Change is a constant and maybe that’s always been the case. That can seriously complicate things, however. Many cities, counties and school districts face challenges with working with local media. Unfortunately, many times a reporter isn’t present at the local meeting and to get information later for a story, he or she relies on a follow-up interview or even hearsay when they assemble a story. That can be challenging for the public official, the reporter and most importantly, the community.
Managing information and messages is tremendously important for the public’s benefit. In this era of social media, it may be more important than ever. Avoiding misinformation, as challenging as it can sometimes be, is always in the public’s best interest.
The conference also included discussions about communication during a crises and communication when people disagree, something that more than a few city councils have been challenged with in recent times. Fellow League of Minnesota Cities board members, including Olivia mayor, Suzanne Hilgert and the city managers of Hopkins and Brooklyn Park were on a panel that discussed using communication tools to better engage their communities.
Effective communication is helpful between city council members and also to the public that we all serve. The League of Minnesota Cities is often a go-to resource for these kinds of things for all of the League’s 833 member cities. Keeping Minnesota’s city council members informed on best practices and helping them to serve the public in the best possible way is a good mission and will always be important. Effective communication is a key to that.
The infrastructure investment proposal that came out of the White House this week was a real head scratcher. I truly believe that our country has no choice but to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in what is commonly called “our crumbling infrastructure”. Getting this done has usually proved to be a political football that keeps getting kicked around and never seems to amount to much.
Such was not always the case. At the risk of being nostalgic for “the good old days”, I will say that back in the 1950s and 1960s, things were much different and much more productive. When the Interstate Highway system was conceived and built, largely from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, the federal government required that each state pay a whopping 10 percent of the cost. Uncle Sam ponied up 90 percent of the cost and that resulted in the Interstate highway system that we have today. As far as I can tell, there wasn’t much jostling for who got credit for making this massive infrastructure project happen.
Fast forward to the infrastructure proposal this week and we’ll see that things have certainly flipped. This latest proposal has the federal government providing less than 20 percent of the more than $1 Trillion proposal. That leaves the remaining 80 percent of funding up to states, local governments and private investors.
While we can safely say that it’s better than nothing, that’s aiming pretty low. This certainly doesn’t seem like much of a way to incentivize investment in these much-needed infrastructure improvements. Unfortunately it does seem to be designed to give credit to folks who are standing on the shoulders of those who are doing all the work and heavy lifting. The message is clear: You folks in state and local government raise taxes to do this. In other words, you take the heat and we’ll take the credit. The other part is this is the potential of turning the ownership of our highways or other infrastructure over to private investors, who presumably will want to profit from the use of those roads or facilities. This will be yet another political football. It’s unfortunate that big egos often get in the way of making some real progress.
Taking credit for other people’s work is an old and tired approach that we’d like to see put to rest. We need some real leadership here. We’ll see what happens but won’t expect much.