Harlan: What I learned working at City Hall
Early in my career, and after a brief stint working for the Los Angeles city attorney, I served for three years as a deputy to a Los Angeles city council member.
To some, this may have seemed like an unusual career move. Why would an attorney, with a specialty in environmental and land-use law, want to be a low-level government employee helping a district of more than 235,000 people in a city of almost 4 million?
I had always been drawn to public-interest work, enjoyed being part of a diverse team and wanted to learn how public policy was made and implemented on the ground. I figured I was young enough that, if things didn’t work out, I could afford to make a mistake. And, I really needed a job.
Ultimately, it was a great decision. That experience — a practical, graduate degree in government administration and community development — formed the cornerstone of how I approach my professional work and my views on governance.
So here are a few things I learned about government working at the grassroots community level, as well as from within City Hall.
1.) Every constituent counts. While my primary responsibility initially was to handle larger, communitywide issues, I could not escape responding to individual constituent concerns. And they ran the gamut — pothole repair, illegal parking, noise complaints (usually dogs, sometimes neighbors), request to install speed humps, request to remove speed humps, et cetera.
As mundane or ridiculous as some of these requests may have seemed, I was obligated to respond with a high level of professionalism — timely, efficiently and with respect. As the councilwoman’s representative, I was her proxy out in the community, and my demeanor, judgment and style were a direct reflection upon her.
Sure, some of our constituents were challenging, and some disagreed with the council member’s policy positions. Even if we engaged in heated debates with our constituents, we didn’t talk to them dismissively, call them names, or belittle them. They were part of the community the councilwoman was elected to serve and deserved the same consideration as anyone else.
2.) The best decisions come from collaboration. I had the pleasure of working with the vibrant and irreverent community of Venice, where the mix of people, interests and points of view offered brilliance and frustration in equal measure. Tying together the diversity was one constant thread — these people knew their neighborhoods best.
Whether it was creating a new vending ordinance for the famed Venice Beach Boardwalk, managing a newly developed dog park or helping maintain the Venice Canals, I took advantage of the perspectives and historical knowledge offered by the local denizens.
In every case, collaboration was the key to a successful project. We couldn’t simply dictate an outcome and force it through the community. Often we needed to really listen, adapt and strive for consensus.
And in City Hall, working cooperatively with the 14 other council offices was critical to move legislative initiatives forward. Much like within our council district communities, we couldn’t jam policy through the legislative process. We needed to collaborate with our colleagues and convince them of the value of our ideas. Collaboration can be messy and unpredictable, but it’s vital to creating both community investment and good public policy.
3.) Defer to the experts. A council member’s primary role is to set policy; the staff’s role is to implement it. There is a natural desire, however, for elected officials to want to control both sides of the policy equation.
Having worked closely with staff from a wide range of service areas, I discovered quickly that I shouldn’t substitute my limited knowledge for their expertise. Sure, I did my research and questioned the bureaucrats about how to improve their processes. But I respected them as professionals in their fields and leveraged their expertise to help our office meet its policy objectives. This approach led to developing cooperative working relationships with the people — the city staff — who really made the difference in our constituents’ daily lives.
4.) Community health is measured outside of City Hall. Generally, our constituents were not overly concerned with the details of citywide governance. Like us, they just wanted safe neighborhoods, quick and reliable emergency response, clean streets and a sense of community pride. And they trusted their elected official would make thoughtful, well reasoned and responsible decisions that protected the community’s interests.
I realized, however, that most of the heavy lifting in a community does not come from City Hall, but from the numerous people, organizations and institutions that make that community unique. I regularly relied on this kind of community network to help me resolve issues and develop ideas for broader citywide policy initiatives. A deep and robust network that works toward realizing a community vision is often a good sign of a community’s overall health.
Now, my hope is that regardless of election day’s outcomes, we continue the important work in Costa Mesa’s neighborhoods and start the difficult task of repairing our community.
JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.