Elected Officials and Their Communities
Earlier this year, I wrote a three-part series of articles outlining the way that transportation policy gets made by elected officials.
But it’s worth discussing elected officials at the local level (City and County) and how they relate to their communities in a little more detail. This is the first of a pair articles where I will delve further into the community’s role in influencing city workers when it comes to how we use our streets.
Note: much of what I say below is based on the city of Los Angeles, where each City councilmember has a deep staff (12–18 people) and represents 280,000 people spread across many different communities. But the general concepts apply to elected officials in smaller cities, even if the interaction these officials have with their communities may look a little different.
LA city councilmembers are very powerful. Yet their power isn’t based solely on the vested authority of the position that can be found in the City Charter.
Rather, much of the power exercised by an elected official is based on a deep knowledge of the communities within their jurisdiction.
Just as transportation departments carry out their work with an eye on what elected officials want to see happen, these same elected officials carry out their own work with a careful eye on what their communities want.
You might say that elected officials report to their own “board” made up of the people who turn out on election day.
This board may meet only every four years, but it requires a lot of work for a person to win an election. The same goes for getting re-elected. A person in office has to spend a lot of time and resources getting a good read on what the communities within their jurisdiction want in order to win a majority of votes.
The result of this work means that people who win elections can be said to embody the role of a “community expert.”
How do they do this? Simply put, they meet with lots of different people everyday and learn from them what their concerns and desires are.
Elected officials meet with formal community and neighborhood leaders as well as many “interest groups” in the areas of policy, business, and governance. They also do things like get coffee with school principals, meet local non-profit directors, visit small business owners, and engage in countless other such check-ins. It isn’t just through formal meetings- much of their community learning comes in the form of chatter during the many community events they attend, like street fairs, special holiday events, and other gatherings.
And elected officials don’t do this alone. In the city of Los Angeles, officials have staff that are deployed to a spectrum of community events and meetings. The goal for staff at these events is not just to give the councilmember representation— it is also to find out from people what is going on in their communities.
A colleague once told me about a Chief-of-Staff for an elected official who instructed staff to always arrive early to community events to find out what people are talking about before the event actually starts- because it is then, before the formalities begin, that you find out what people are really concerned about. Council staff who do their jobs well maintain relationships not just with “official” community leaders, but also with informal ones- the people who may have no title but are inherently involved in the daily life of a community.
You might say that the office of an elected official, consisting of the elected official and staff, embody an extensive group of “data collectors.”
No doubt, this data set that elected officials compile is far from perfect. At the micro-level, a neighborhood block group will always know more about their block, and an issue-based community group might know more about their particular issue. Plus, 280,000 is a lot of people, and it’s impossible for anyone to know exactly what they are all thinking.
But when it comes to grasping the totality of the different concerns of communities, few organizations can match the office of the elected official for breadth and comprehensiveness. I would venture that few people in a political jurisdiction will ever learn as much about the diversity of community opinions than an elected official with a properly functioning staff.
Every time you see a ribbon-cutting event with those ridiculous large scissors cutting a piece of tape, know that it’s more than just a photo-op — there are impromptu community meetings going on before and after that scissor moment. They take the form of conversations between the different elected officials in attendance; between staff members; and most importantly, there is a non-stop sequence of conversations with community members.
I once saw current LA Mayor Eric Garcetti keep a group of important people waiting at a community event because he was caught up talking in Spanish to a group of elderly community members. They hadn’t sought the Mayor out- he went up to where they were sitting at the back of the event and spent time asking them questions and hearing what they had to say.
As a result of all the activities I’ve described here, elected officials frequently assemble what may be the most comprehensive “data set” available about community preferences on the issues that matter most to constituents.
What This Means for Transportation
So why is this important? Why does it matter that elected officials are community experts, particularly as pertains to transportation?
For one, this means that if an elected official is not acting in accordance with your preferred transportation project or policy approach, it doesn’t directly follow that they are out of touch with the community.
In my experience, it’s more likely that the “data” they have collected from constituents simply reflects a different policy preference, and if anyone is likely to be out of touch with the broader community preference, it’s you (or me, or anyone interested in seeing more change in our transportation network).
This has nothing to do with whether a project is a good idea. It’s just the cold hard fact of understanding where most of the community stands.
This is a fact often misunderstood by people invested in a particular transportation project or issue.
I think people too often resort believing that the elected official is simply talking to the “wrong people” (the rich, the powerful, the loud voices, etc.) and that he or she is out of touch with the needs and concerns of everyday people in the community.
It is difficult to rebut claims that an elected official is out of touch, because this phenomenon does happen. Some elected officials get complacent and lose connection with their communities.
But I think it happens far less than assumed. Most elected officials really do have a good read on their communities, and if they oppose a particular project, it’s likely that opposition is an “expression” of most of the community and not in defiance of it.
In fact, one reason it’s so hard to beat an incumbent elected official is precisely because they have such a comprehensive understanding of the communities within their jurisdiction. Sure, the name recognition and fundraising opportunities don’t hurt. But it’s more than that — they have learned what most of the community prefers and that information informs their platform.
This may be an old-fashioned perspective, but I believe the significant time, resources, and effort that elected officials spend serving their communities means that most elected officials generally have a very good idea of what most people in their communities want. I think this applies across income levels, ethnic groups, and any number of societal categories— where most people tend to interact with certain groups more than others, the office of an elected official interacts with them all.
It’s never possible to say the “entire community” supports or opposes any given the project, since all communities have people with a variety of opinions.
But if an elected official is opposed to a bike lane, a bus lane, or a road diet, it’s likely because most of the community is opposed to it. And perhaps supporters of such projects should not view the elected official as the primary obstacle when the more pressing problem throughout our cities is that a majority of community members often don’t support the projects we believe will improve things.
For more on this topic, see my follow-up article: “How Communities Shape Our Streets.”
See an overview of the other things I’ve written, transportation-related and otherwise, at the link here.