From Activist to Policymaker: Now What?

by Bill Britt
The Latino Policy Connection

AR-302099951“I still consider myself an activist.”

Oscar Magaña – Mayor, City of Maywood

Self-proclaimed community activist Oscar Magaña didn’t expect to lose friends when he won a seat on the Maywood City Council in 2011, but that’s exactly what happened when some of the people who encouraged him to run realized he wasn’t going to deliver for them.

“My transition into office was probably more difficult for them than it was for me. There are people who knocked on doors for me who don’t talk to me today because they wanted a favor or something that I knew, morally, I wasn’t going to do.”

That’s the first splash of ice-cold reality that typically hits newly-elected policymakers. The second and far more harsh awakening is the realization that they’re now part of an organization that functions with a specific set of rules. They’re reluctant to admit they don’t know what those rules are, let alone understand them. Which is why they should take a few cues from predecessors like Magaña, who didn’t hesitate to ask for help the moment he achieved the status of Insider. “I formed a relationship with people I could trust, who’ve been in office much longer than I have,” he says. “I looked to people like Aide Castro for advice.”

images“You can’t be on the dais protesting.”

Aide Castro – Councilmember, City of Lynwood

 

Aide Castro, elected to the Lynwood City Council in 2007, has been around long enough to recognize the pitfalls of former activists who are more accustomed to confrontation than compromise. “If you learn the rules for addressing your colleagues and understand protocol, you can still push an agenda but you can’t be on the dais protesting at city council meetings.”

“I can see where she’s going with this, regarding certain people who continue to be combative,” says Huntington Park Mayor Karina Macias, who’s been Mayor for the past two months and a City Council Member since 2012. “I always extended an olive branch and showed up with an open mind. But I wasn’t going to vote ‘yes’ on council matters for the sake of voting ‘yes.’ I stood my ground on issues that I knew were important to the community at that time.” In fact, she says her early years were mirror images of Magaña’s experiences. “I lost a few friends as well. I sat down with a constituent who actually did not want me to associate with another council member and I said, ‘Look. She’s my colleague. I have to talk to her!’”

karina-macias-headshot-635359388252556000

“I always extended an olive branch…”

Karina Macias – Mayor, City of Huntington Park

 

Based on council member Castro’s observations over the years, Mayor Macias’ willingness to engage is a welcome exception to the norm. According to Castro, there’s “a trust issue among the elected and the staff,” but the first people newly-electeds should trust are city managers. She doesn’t mince words when asked to explain the importance of city mangers to new officer-holders.

“If you go to your city managers, or at least get them on the phone once a week and ask questions before the next city council meeting, you can avoid spending time on the dais asking those questions. You think you sound smart, but you don’t. You’re just frustrating the hell out of everyone else who’s there trying to get things done.”

tn-blr-south-gate-gives-flad-215000-contract-2-001Mike Flad, the City Manager for South Gate, has an administrative career that dates back 30 years, mostly with the city of Burbank. “I’ve put in 50 to 60 hours a week for decades, and I’ve seen everyone benefit when newly-elected people meet with city managers on a regular basis. “Let’s say you want to reduce unemployment and you believe building an employment center in your community would be a huge step in that direction. It’s totally appropriate to go to your city manager and ask, ‘How do I get there as a council member? Where do I start?’”

imgres-1Castro suggests they start with their own staff. “Discuss your idea with them and have them gather all the research. Then, go to your city manager and explain that you want to put it on the council’s agenda. Your staff’s recommendation will state that you’re either agreeing with it, or you’re asking for the council’s direction. This way, when you go to council meetings you’re presenting solutions rather than complaining about problems.”  

“I saw all the arguing going on before I was elected and I didn’t like it,” says council member Magaña. “While some people were saying I was too young and inexperienced for office, they didn’t realize I planned on being the most mature person there. If I took office and started arguing with people and not listening to others, they would’ve said, ‘See! He’s too young and inexperienced!'”

That’s not to say he arrived with the air of a soothing diplomat. “At first it was a little difficult understanding there are certain things you can’t say as an elected official because you represent the entire community.” He also learned some of the rules and protocol during his activist years, but he admits “there was a lot of trial and error involved” when he got into office.

Oscar-Magaña-en-una-escuela-561x375Ironically, Magaña’s first year was complicated by a compliment. “I was appointed Vice Mayor by my colleagues. My second and third year they appointed me Mayor.” City Manager Flad explains why that’s a complicated twist for new office-holders. “There’s a difference between attending a meeting and running a meeting. When you’re a council member you’re focused on the issue. When you’re the mayor you’re responsible for making sure the process that’s followed is going to be legally binding, and you’re trying to advocate your own position while you’re doing that.”

“Most newly-elected officials have never helped run an organization with a 100-million dollar budget and several hundred employees.” And as Flad points out, when that organization is a city, the smallest misstep can derail the best-laid plans. “You have to make sure the procedure is done right so that new law you’ve just created isn’t thrown out because you didn’t follow the rules.”

Says Flad, “city managers can explain those rules for you. Getting elected requires one set of skills. Governing requires another. There’s a lot of knowledge out there that needs to be shared.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *