Council relationships aren’t always easy. When councils and mayors work well together, the positive impacts can be far reaching, improving staff retention, workplace culture, and your city’s ability to move your agenda. But when these relationships are strained, important city work can stall, depleting everyone’s energy along the way.
“[They are the] two most important days of the year for our council – more important than the budget or any other one thing that we work on, because it’s not about the things we work on, it’s about how we work on those things.” – Mayor Jake Spano, on St. Louis Park City Council’s annual retreat
Recognizing the importance of council relationships, we invited St. Louis Park, MN Mayor Jake Spano to lead a virtual session last month, sharing details about the city’s council retreat process. On the call, Mayor Spano was joined by former City Manager Tom Harmening. The two opened by discussing and emphasizing the importance of culture and went on to share some best practices from their experience:
- Every organization has a culture; the first step to improving culture is acknowledging that it exists and better understanding yours.
- Governance, relationships, and self-awareness are the key ingredients to a healthy culture.
- Especially if there are significant tensions among elected leaders, or resistance to the approach, it’s ok to start small with council retreats. You may want to begin with a focus on governance and norm creation; you can always add more/go deeper later once more trust is established.
- The St. Louis Park City Council has used tools like True Colors, Myers Briggs, and the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument during their retreats to help members understand how they and others receive information and react in response to situations.
- Investment of time and money is key; recommendations include planning several months out, surveying participants to help establish the agenda, and retaining a professional facilitator with expertise in the tools and processes you choose to use.
Also presenting on the webinar was Kathy Eckles, an Associate at Essential Partners, who shared how she has worked with communities to create spaces where honest and productive dialogue can thrive, avoiding the pitfalls of polarization. Eckles’ best practices echoed the experience of Spano and Harmening, including:
- Establishing norms or communications agreements,
- Taking opportunities to slow down discussion,
- Centering commonalities over differences, and
- Assuming good intentions.
“I see the most positive impacts when leadership of a city says yes to having a civil discourse.” – Kathy Eckles
While in most states council retreats are required to be open meetings, most mayors on the call noted that members of the public do not attend them because they are clear that what is being discussed is not policy, but relationships. Recommendations for creating an environment for open and candid discussion included meeting off-site from City Hall and not recording or live streaming the session.
Attendees also raised the critical role that race and gender can play in these experiences, and how the dynamic can be different – and often more confrontational – if the mayor is a woman or person of color. This discussion acknowledged that there are others who can and should speak more clearly to these impacts and experiences.
If you have more questions for our speakers, we encourage you to reach out – Mayor Spano, Tom Harmening, and Kathy Eckles have generously voiced their enthusiasm to hear from you. You can also view a recording of the session and read more about the webinar at the event page.