That first city council meeting after an election can be a splash of reality for newly elected local leaders.
“When you first get in office and sit in front of your first meeting, you feel like a fish out of water,” said Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan, who was first elected 12 years ago. “Governing is very complicated. It’s not something that you can just walk in and start doing.”
The Newly Elected Municipal Officials Institute was mandated in 1990 by state lawmakers, who directed the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government and the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) to provide the curriculum. First-term city officials who participate earn the minimum six hours of training set by law.
More than 250 participated in the training at the UGA Center for Continuing Education & Hotel on Feb. 16 and 17, learning about the legal, financial and ethical responsibilities of city officials. A second institute for newly elected municipal officials will be held in Tifton in March.
Among the participants at the Athens institute was Stephen Hendrix, who was elected to the city council in Oakwood, next door to Gainesville in Hall County, in November. Hendrix admits his first two council meetings were a little overwhelming as he began adjusting to the nuances of local government operations.
By lunchtime on the first day of the training, Hendrix had gotten some helpful insight on ethics. As co-owner of McGee’s Cleaning Services, he realized he would no longer be able to do work for the City of Oakwood as that would be a conflict of interest.
“Being in local government can be overwhelming not knowing the ins and outs of things,” Hendrix said. “The handbooks (from the training) will be something I go back and look at. It just helps (local officials) be more informed and do a better job for people.”
Gainesville City Manager Bryan Lackey, who participated with Dunagan in a panel discussion on relationships between elected officials and city staff, says the city benefits when the mayor and council members have had some basic training in governance. Budget training is among the most beneficial, he says, because it helps new officials, many of whom have been in private business, more quickly understand the the limitations of tax generated revenue as a funding source for public services.
“Most of the time someone runs for office because they have a passion for a particular issue,” Lackey said. “I think this type of training helps them understand the broader context of the rules and procedures their city operates under.” If you look at the days before this existed, there was just a haphazard (understanding) of how local governments were run.”
Ruth Bruner was first elected to the Gainesville City Council in 2003 and attended the institute the following year. She says she learned a lot about how to run an executive session and the ethical rules municipal officials must follow.
“We don’t have the background that city managers do,” Bruner said. “A lot of cities are very small and people get elected off the street pretty much. You don’t know how things are supposed to be run. It really helps you to make sure a city is run more efficiently and ethically.”
That foundation helps Georgia’s cities run smoother, Lackey said.
“It gives such an anchor for people,” Lackey said. “If you look at the days before this existed, there was just a haphazard (understanding) of how local governments were run. For newly elected officials to come together and talk to each other and gain a perspective of what they’re seeing from other officials, that helps them from the start.”
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