PTC’s Imker: How to run for City Council

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City Council posts 1 and 2 are up for election this coming Nov. 3. This letter is for you, the citizens, to encourage you to consider running for office. It may appear unconventional that someone in office would advise others to run for that office. But if you know anything about me, you know I don’t fit the mold of a typical politician.

I am proud to be a member of the current council who I believe has demonstrated the utmost integrity by proving over and over again there has been absolutely no personal gain at stake in regards to the decisions made over the last year. There has been absolutely no indication any council member was voting because a special interest (builder, retailer, anyone) wanted a vote a certain way.

Now to the title subject in seven steps.

Step one — Deciding to run. DO IT! If you win you will have one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. Make your decision on which post to run for based on your perception of what you can do better than any other potential candidate … or incumbent. Write a declaration letter to the local newspaper editors of your intention and include What, Where, How, Why, Who, When. It’s exciting and self improving. It will cause you to think about issues that are important to the citizens.

Step two — The City Clerk will assist candidates in filing out the proper forms prior to “qualifying.” This includes completing four forms:

1 — State Ethics Commission — Registration Form for a Campaign Committee

2 — State Ethics Commission — Declaration of Intention to Accept Campaign Contributions

3 — Financial Disclosure Form

4 — Campaign Contribution Disclosure Report

These forms are rather easy to complete, especially the first two which are simple one-page forms.

City staff is there to help you complete them and even notarize any forms without charge when required. Completing this step means you have declared your candidacy, which provides you the right to formally request meetings with city staff to discuss their areas of responsibility.

Step three — Qualifying is the term used to say you are paying the required fee which in turn gets your name on the ballot. This year the qualifying period is Aug. 31 through Sept. 4. It costs 3 percent of the annual job salary. For a city council post it is $360 based on a $12,000 a year salary. Again, the city clerk will help you do this.

Step four — Understand the city’s ordinances and budget. You don’t have to be fluent but you should at least know how to find the ordinance “book” on the city’s website and understand its structure. You should download a previous year’s budget and review it to understand its organization and big picture.

Step five — Debates with other candidates. This is simply part of the vetting process. There’s lots of advice to be received. Only you can judge how to prepare. Familiarity with the issues is your best friend as it puts you at ease and enables you the state your position clearly and confidently.

Step six — Campaigning. You don’t need a committee or advisor or anything else. Do what you think will get your message across to the most voters. It may take the form of letters to the editors, yard signs, debates, etc. Make sure your positions are ones that you believe most citizens care about such as budget, land use issues, public safety, public works, etc. Advertising in newspapers is optional. List your positions and how you differ from other candidates. Hint: Never ever include your opponent(s) name in writing. All you’re doing is providing name recognition.

Step seven — Election night. How does one describe it? To me it was exciting, interesting and provided a sense of finality to the election process. It‘s weird seeing your name scroll across the bottom of the TV for the first time. Usually, family members are more excited than you.

If you win, city staff will brief you in an unbiased procedure. You’ll get appointments with all the department directors and chiefs. You’ll get orientation tours of everything.

One memorable example in my case was going on a patrol ride with one of our police officers for a day. That particular ride included an arrest of a criminal at the south side Publix shopping center who was involved with stolen vehicles and chop shops outside Fayette County. Seeing our city police in action first hand makes you appreciate the work they do.

You will be provided a $3,000 training budget to take classes in city government. There is only one mandatory class and that is usually provided in late February or early March. It is a day and a half session class held in Athens, Ga. It includes ethics rules and budgeting among many other items. All other training and classes are optional and staff will provide you with a list if you want to spend up to your $3,000 training limit. Again, you be the judge if you need any of this to vote on issues that concern the citizens of Peachtree City.

Knowing Robert’s Rules is not a requirement. It’s more a requirement that you have the courage to ask questions on procedure during a council meeting. It’s simple and I guarantee you that you will not be the only one who wants to know the answer to your question. Staff at city hall will assist you with procedures for making motions and voting. The city attorney will always be there to help you through any awkward moments. All you have to do is make your question known and things will stop until you’re up to speed.

It will be explained to you that executive session at the end of council meetings are called for one or more of the following reasons: 1. Real estate; 2. Personnel; 3. Lawsuits.

The city attorney will specify what executive session is for. A motion is made to go into executive session where you talk privately with the other council members, city manager and city attorney. No voting is allowed. You motion to come out of executive session. You may then make motions to vote on things if necessary. Then you motion to adjourn the council meeting. Easy.

Speaking of lawsuits. Don’t be concerned about being personally sued as a council member. The city has what’s known as indemnification; a sort of lawsuit insurance that will be explained to you. You will be told that at least once during your term chances are you will get a personal letter at your home that says you are being sued because of something. Simply take it to city hall. Staff and the city attorney will take care of it. Now, if you do do something stupid, that’s your own problem.

Do not feel intimidated about the procedural mechanisms of getting things on the city council agenda and the process of preparing for the council meeting. Agenda items are usually generated by staff or council members. You may ask for your own agenda items for either discussion or voting by simply forwarding the request to the city manager and copying the other council members. In fact, any citizen can do this on pretty much any issue however it would be best to get in touch with a council member to sponsor the idea.

Preparation for council meetings is made easy because staff provides you an “agenda packet” a week before the council meeting which includes unbiased positions from staff on the pros and cons for each voting agenda item (look for the word “Consider” in the agenda item) as well as a staff recommendation. During the council meetings you will hear from staff, citizens and other council members and then vote. If you’re still not ready and think additional information is needed you can ask for a “Continuance” until a future council meeting.

In my particular role as council member, I have taken it upon myself to understand the entire city budget. I feel without this understanding, votes that have financial impacts will not be fully comprehended. The city lives on the budget. Without it there is nothing else.

Remember, council members are citizens too. There is no special requirement. On many occasions you become one of five votes on issues you and usually the others have absolutely no previous experience with. You may think to yourself, I have no expertise on this issue. Well, usually there are no true experts. You’ll be asked to vote on things with only the information you’ll be given and your own personal feelings. You’ll ask yourself, is this in the best interest of the citizens of Peachtree City? You’ll try to make sure your vote is not based on any bias. You’ll realize that with every vote you may lose a few former supporting constituents. You’ll wonder after hundreds of votes, who would ever vote for you again. You simply have to remember: nobody else would vote on every issue exactly the same way as you.

Have confidence that the voters understand you are doing what you feel is best for the citizens. Many times people don’t see the bigger picture or the long-term impact of a vote and you’ll get an earful from those who are out to gain “points” by sharing nearsighted and short-term concerns without giving the whole picture. This will be the most frustrating part of being a council member. You’ll need the fortitude to do what you know is best and your ally will be being able to explain it simply while not becoming biased yourself.

Just like this letter, someone out there will be ready to pounce on something they find disagreeable herein. They’ll take one statement and try to make it look like I have no clue about something. Fine. But will they run for office and offer themselves up for public inspection on every viewpoint required of an elected official?

This has been an outline of becoming and being a council member. I sincerely hope some of you who haven’t before thought about it will jump in will see that other than the $360 it takes to get your name on the ballot, it’s really quite easy. Do it. I promise you, you’ll look back and realize it was one of the most rewarding adventures in your life. Contact me if you have questions.

Eric Imker
City Council Post 1
Peachtree City, Ga.