Effective Decision-Making/Staff Relations

Often the decisions made by municipal committees can have a far reaching impact on residents of the Whitewater community. This reality can make the role of a committee member both challenging and rewarding. This is especially true for those serving on the common council, but holds true for other municipal committees as well. When a committee is tasked with making a decision on a particular issue, it is important to keep emotions and political influences out of the discussion as much as possible. This does not mean that committee members should not be sensitive to the needs and desires of those most closely impacted by a particular decision. However, it does mean that committee members should strive to remain open minded, work together and follow an objective process. Following is a list of questions you should consider asking yourself before making a final decision.

Do you have sufficient information?

The saying, “shoot first, ask questions later” helps illustrate the danger of making quick decisions without first confirming the information on the issue is complete. It is likely impossible to know absolutely everything there is to know about a particular issue, but it is possible to gather a reasonable amount of information from multiple perspectives. While committees should deliberate and take action in a timely manner, not all actions need to be taken immediately. In some cases it may be beneficial to bring an item back for discussion at a future meeting if information on the issue is limited.

Am I separating people and emotions from the issue?

While we like to think we are objective, rational beings, we can often be led by our emotions. It is important to make sure that on committee decisions, emotions are not the basis for decisions made. Be honest with yourself and be sure your own positive or negative feelings about a particular matter or individual take a backseat to the proper weighing of facts related to the issue.

Are you open, honest, and willing to listen?

Examine your own approach to dealing with conflict. Are you really listening to what your colleagues are saying? Are you thinking about the implications? Are you considering them? Don’t be afraid to state your concerns. Be honest by revealing what you see as the options and by explaining what you see as shortcomings in the suggestions of others.

What is the committee’s scope of responsibility?

At times committee members can feel as if they have bogged down and are not progressing on an issue. At such times, it can be helpful to take a step back and review the purpose for which the committee was established or review committee goals. If the discussion has gone off track, focus may need to be redirected. If the problem seems impossible to solve, you may need to come back to it at the next meeting. No matter what action is taken, always remember that everyone on the committee is volunteering their time and shares a common interest in the overall well-being of the City.

Is there a compromise that can be made?

At times when one is wrapped up in a debate on a particular topic, it can be easy to think only in the absolute terms of one’s particular position. However, more often than not, win-win solutions exist when committee members are creative enough to discover them. When parties are locked on an issue, take a moment to consider potential routes for a compromise. Think about all that has been said throughout the debate. Can the best aspects of everybody’s ideas be incorporated into a plan? Ask your colleagues why a particular approach is not satisfactory and why other approaches are.

Did staff have any thoughts or recommendations?

Most committees have a specific municipal employee assigned to serve as staff support to the committee. Often the person assigned is a department director or manager in the area that most closely associates with the role of the committee. The Neighborhood Services Director, for example, supports and advises the plan and architectural review commission. Assigned staff can be a valuable resource to provide professional guidance and/or recommendations on how to proceed with a decision. Staff can also research the topic under discussion and gather additional information related to the specific case in question. Staff can often also provide insight into best practices used in other communities to address similar issues.

Effective Council, Committee/Staff Relations

People make it all happen. In local government, people are at the heart of the organization, both those that comprise the organization, and those that the organization serves. In the City of Whitewater, cooperation and communication between city employees and committee members is encouraged and can often result in better outcomes and a more rewarding experience for all involved. To ensure that lines of positive communication remain open for all employees and volunteers, it is important to clarify some ground rules regarding communications as well as the role of staff members and committee members.

Everyone is Equal

All committee members are considered equal, including the chair or president of the committee. This means everyone on the committee should receive the same information on a particular matter. When a staff member shares information related to committee business, committee members can be confident the same information is being shared with all committee members. No single member should receive “special” information on an issue. This also means committee members should expect information they request on committee business will be distributed to the entire committee. This is the same for all committees, including the common council.

Use of Staff Resources

Staff time is limited. All positions within the City of Whitewater exist to provide and maintain municipal services, facilities, and infrastructure and to carry out organization priorities as determined by the common council. Committee members, including common council members, should be cognizant of this reality when making requests for information. Requests for information are welcome and encouraged; however, committee members should first consult with the city manager before requesting research that will consume significant staff time or otherwise divert limited resources to a project that falls outside of established common council priorities.

Employee Contact Line of Authority

Unless otherwise established by state statute, city ordinance, or employment agreement, all employees ultimately report to and work for the city manager. The city manager, in turn, works for and reports to the common council.

Common councilmembers as well as committee members are encouraged to learn about the role of each municipal department, to ask the staff questions about municipal operations and get to know employees. As a general practice, employees are expected to copy the city manager on all responses to inquiries made by common council members. 

While communication is encouraged, the responsibility to direct the work of municipal employees, as well as prescribing or exacting employee discipline, are strictly the responsibility of the city manager. Therefore, if a committee member, including a common council member, has a concern related to the conduct or performance of an employee, that committee member should address it with the city manager.

However, if the concern were related specifically to the conduct or performance of the city manager, the committee member would be encouraged to bring it to the attention of the common council.

Lobbying Committee Members

Just as committee members should avoid directing work or disciplinary action for employees, employees should refrain from any action or communication that is intended to “lobby” the support of committee members for support of a particular project, budget request, or other initiative. This holds true for department directors, managers, and general employees. If a committee member finds himself or herself in such a position, the committee member is encouraged to direct the employee to his/her immediate supervisor and/or department director to address the issue. Committee members are encouraged to notify the city manager so legitimate issues can be promptly addressed.