Even after almost 40 years as a city attorney for the Polk County towns of Cedartown and Rockmart, Mike McRae admits to learning something fresh each time a rookie city council member returns from the Newly Elected Officials Institute at the University of Georgia.
He expects no different this year when Cedartown’s newest commissioner, Jessica Payton, heads home from Athens after her training Feb. 16-17. (Payton is a city official; Cedartown calls its town board members commissioners.)
The training is a partnership between UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government and the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) and has introduced incoming city leaders to best practices in local governance since 1984.
Over two days, mayors and councilmembers study policy-making, finance and related topics to better understand city government and fulfill the state’s six-hour training requirement for new officeholders. Up to 450 new officials will attend one of two events in Athens and Tifton this year.
A partner at the McRae, Smith, Peek, Harman and Monroe, LLP law firm, McRae is called on to present at the annual program often and was a keynote speaker on ethics for municipal officials at the training in Athens. He also authored and co-founded GMA’s Model Code of Ethics.
“There are three parts of the larger Carl Vinson Institute and GMA training that are critical for newly elected officials,” McRae said. “The most important part to me is governance. If you’re dysfunctional as a government and you don’t govern yourself accordingly, then you’ve got major problems trying to get anything done within your municipality.”
Setting policy and budgeting public funds are other critical sessions for a new city council member or mayor.
Payton, a Cedartown native, single mother and certified neuromuscular therapist, owns Balanced Movement studio in Rome and says she ran for the open commissioner’s seat upon encouragement from friends and other citizens.
Her key takeaways from the Newly Elected Officials Institute are the skills she needs to communicate better with the citizens of Cedartown and to find ways to make the community better.
“As a non-politician, I understand that most people don’t know how a smaller city government works,” said Payton. “I would hope that I am able to bring some of that to the commission, just helping people understand.”
McRae says there are clear distinctions among small, medium and large city governances, with large governments similar to Atlanta’s being complex and geographically driven.
“I think there’s a huge difference in the way you operate. Medium-size communities have to gel on strategic planning for their future of growth,” he said. “And then I think the hardest part of governance is for your small communities where everybody knows everybody.”
McRae is confident that Payton can successfully navigate local government using the curriculum taught at UGA’s Newly Elected Officials Institute to guide her.
“She is going to be energetic. She’s going to want to do things,” McRae said. “I would think that Jessica’s one role would be to try to blend the personalities and to get the commissioners to look at the broader sense of what we need to do to help our community in the next five to 10 years.”
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