'None Of These Votes Are Easy': Learning The Ropes On City Council
When you're facing a major life change, it helps to talk to someone who's already been through it. All Things Considered is connecting people on either side of a shared experience, and they're letting us eavesdrop on their conversations in our series Been There.
Charles Johnson's new job is tough. The training is minimal and expectations are high. It doesn't pay much — in fact, he still works his old job at a chemical plant. And to top it off, he has to answer to thousands of bosses. They're called voters.
The new gig? City councilman in Baytown, Texas, population: 76,335. Charles has wanted to run for office since he was a kid.
Last year, he finally did it.
"Filled out the paperwork, entered my name, and 1,500 doors later, here I am," he says.
Charles took the oath of office in January, and the weight of his new responsibilities hit home.
"I had someone tell me that, when I went up to my seat at the dais, the expression on my face was, 'Wow,'" he says.
Ryan Coonerty knows that feeling well. He served in city government in Santa Cruz, Calif., for nearly a decade as a councilman and mayor. Now he's on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors.
Though the two cities are miles apart in distance and in culture, the issues facing municipal governments — zoning regulations, pothole repair, parking restrictions — are surprisingly universal.
So, this January, before Charles' first council meeting, Ryan shared some of the lessons he's learned since his first day in office, which he remembers as "humbling and inspiring and scary, all at the same time."
Lessons From Ryan Coonerty
On being recognized in public
When you go to the grocery store, buy your frozen food last. Because, people are gonna stop you in the aisles, and they're gonna want to talk to you, and your food will melt. Everything is gonna take you a little bit longer, cause people all have opinions. They'll want to bend your ear about this or that. Always have your business cards on you. And don't be afraid, when people are interrupting you and your family at a restaurant, hand them a business card and say, "I'm with my family right now, I'd be happy to talk with you. Email or call me and we'll make a time to meet." Because otherwise, people will just eat up your time. And being in elective office is really fun and interesting for you. It's a challenge for your family.
On dealing with a constituent with a strong opinion on an issue
None of these votes are easy. If they were easy, it would have been decided by somebody at the building counter. So, it's coming to you because it's hard. But the best thing you can do is making sure that she understands, you know, when the public meetings will be, how she can participate. Even if you end up not voting with her, it gives her the opportunity to have her voice be heard, and that's part of your job.
On preparing for ribbon-cutting ceremonies
It's actually surprisingly tricky to cut things with those giant scissors. So, make sure you practice once at the office before you go out there. You don't want to screw up somebody's big opening of their restaurant by not being able to actually cut the ribbon.
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