Learning to lead
Congratulations! You’ve just been elected to city government. Now what?
Your first weeks in office can be intimidating. You have new responsibilities, unfamiliar laws to follow and complicated procedures to implement. How do you learn to effectively serve in your new job?
If you are in Iowa, you sign up for the Municipal Leadership Academy. After each election cycle, the academy provides 400-500 newly elected mayors, city council members, city clerks and city administrators with a comprehensive overview of Iowa municipal government. It is presented by the Iowa League of Cities, the Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Iowa and the Office of State and Local Government Programs at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.
Mark Tomb, director of membership services for the Iowa League of Cities, explained the need for the MLA. “The goal is to really expose elected officials, and certainly newly elected officials with the kind of issues and the rules of the road, and to give them a good overview of their responsibilities in their new positions. And for those that are incumbents, it can be a good reminder as well.”
The Leadership Academy is divided into three sections. Iowa holds municipal elections in November of odd numbered years, and part one is offered soon after, before newly elected officials take office in January. The academy offers the four-hour training in several cities around the state, covering topics such as budget and finance, effective city councils, municipal operations and ethics.
Part two is an online class offered once newly elected officials take office and covers topics like city budgets, planning and zoning, and strategies for success in office. Part three offers more in-depth training on economic development, community development, and strategic planning and goal setting.
The final part of the Municipal Leadership Academy takes place at the Iowa League of Cities’ annual conference and exhibit. Participants who complete the required courses are awarded the Certified Elected Municipal Official designation at the conference.
The MLA provides elected officials with the legal and technical knowledge they need to legally fulfill their duties. Amy Nielsen, mayor of North Liberty, Iowa, is a current participant in the academy. “My first elected position was as mayor,” said Nielsen, “and so the basics of how to run a meeting, the open meetings laws, rules and responsibilities of various positions — that was incredibly helpful. One of things I think they do a really, really good job of teaching is TIF, tax increment financing, because it is so multi-layered and you think you’ve learned it and then all of a sudden they throw in a ‘Oh, no, and then there’s this.’ And so they do a really good job of teaching you the basics little by little and adding it on. And then also bringing in people who work with it every day. At Leadership Academy Part Three, we had a guest speaker that works with finance — TIF finance — every day, and he did a really good job of getting into the weeds, so I feel like there’s always an opportunity to learn what you need on day one. Even if you are a seasoned elected official, there’s opportunity for you to learn from the League’s various workshops.”
In addition to legal matters, some workshops cover topics like relating to the public. “There was one workshop that was all about how to handle ‘customer complaints,’” Nielsen said. “And the way that it was presented and the information that was given was just so perfect. They talked about ‘C.A.V.E. people’ — Citizens Against Virtually Everything. No matter what you do there’s always going to be someone who’s unhappy. They really gave us good tools to deal with that, because it is hard when you’re trying to make the best decision for 18,000 people. They’re not all going to agree on what the solution is, and so being able to not take the criticisms personally, and to put yourself in their shoes, but still be able to relate to them and let them feel like they’ve been heard and that they’ve had a chance to participate is important. I really think that was probably — other than the technical stuff — one of the most helpful workshops.”
Tomb said that the benefits of the Academy extend beyond the material presented in class. “We do this on a regional basis,” he said. “So, for Part One, it’s going to six locations so newly elected officials and other elected officials learn from their neighbors, too, and the networking opportunities — it’s hard to overestimate that power or that benefit because people are dealing with the same kind of budget constraints, environmental regulations, building projects, you name the issue. Get them in the same room and start talking about it, and they can share lessons learned. There are laws and rules of the road that we all need to be aware of, particularly with open meetings and open records and fraud and abuse cases that have occurred and what elected officials can do about it, so it really empowers elected officials to do their job more effectively.”
Miranda Kulis, a council member in Newton, Iowa, values the relationships she has forged with her peers in city government through the MLA. “I’ve found that having this network has given me the confidence that, if I don’t have an answer or I’m not exactly sure what to do, first of all, I have a network of other people that I have physically met from other cities of a similar size that I can reach out to for assistance. But also there’s the fact that I have a huge treasure trove of online information available to me that I can reach out to as well.”
Nielsen recommends the Municipal Leadership Academy to all those taking office for the first time. “I think that if you don’t take it, you’re just missing a big piece of being an elected official,” she said. “I would highly recommend it to everybody. I think it’s very much worth the time and the investment to better serve your citizens. We’re really lucky to have that kind of resource here for us to use.”
THE WHOLE GAMUT
Beyond forming invaluable relationships and having access to beneficial resources, Iowa’s Municipal Leadership Academy addresses many important topics, including:
- City finance and budgeting
- Meeting procedures
- Municipal operations
- Economic development
- Ethics and fraud prevention
- Nuisance abatement
- Personnel issues
- Land use and zoning
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