Following municipal elections, a city council often sees new members taking a seat. With varying levels of understanding of how a city government functions, it is important that new members learn about the different operations of the city, the legal requirements they must work under and the key issues facing the city. Getting new council members educated and aware of the responsibilities of their new position will help ensure they have a successful term in office.
Prior to Taking Office
- Take the oath of office.
- Obtain your “Certificate of Election” from the county auditor.
- Learn about Iowa’s open meetings laws (Chapter 21 of the Code of Iowa).
- Become familiar with Iowa’s ethics laws for elected officials.
- Check with the city clerk about being covered by a bond.
- If elected mayor, appoint a mayor pro-tem.
- File a campaign disclosure report in accordance with Code of Iowa Chapter 68A (if you accepted and spent funds during your election).
- Request that the city clerk send to you the same packet of information that is sent to the current city council.
- Request a copy of a detailed map of your city.
- Request and review a current copy of the city budget.
The First 60 Days in Office
- Obtain and review key documents, including:
- Current city budget
- Capital improvements plan, equipment replacement schedule or other long-term projects lists if they exist
- Most recent city audit and annual financial report
- City code
- City organizational chart
- Staff roster and phone/email directory
- Comprehensive plan and other important planning documents
- Goals and priorities of your city (if they exist)
- Council rules and meeting procedures
- Calendar of important events
- Review the city ordinance or resolution that establishes your city council’s committee system.
- Review city council meeting minutes from the previous three to six months.
- Request and review a list of city boards and commissions that shows who serves, their duties, the city code sections that establish them, and the term length of the members.
- Check to ensure that you are covered by the city’s “errors and omissions” insurance policy.
- While adhering to open meetings laws, meet with the other elected officials and appropriate city staff members to review and discuss key policies, procedures and processes that your city has used, such as goal setting and strategic planning.
- Talk with your fellow policy leaders and key staff members about the processes and methods used to effectively work together.
- Schedule a tour of all city buildings and facilities, such as the city hall, police station, fire station, library, parks, water wells, wastewater facility, lift stations, etc.
- Determine whether you will be covered through the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System (IPERS). Although elected positions are IPERS-covered, the law allows elected officials to opt out of coverage.
The First 90 Days in Office
- Review the job descriptions that are on file for city employees.
- Review the city’s 28E agreements and written contacts.
- Review the city’s policy manuals and employment contracts.
- Request a copy of the city’s zoning district map for your reference.
- Consider scheduling a meeting with other city councils in your county to discuss common issues, problems and trends, or to just get acquainted.
- Review your city’s civil defense plan and/or disaster preparedness and emergency response plan.
- Read your city’s most recent water and wastewater inspection reports.
- Review your city’s urban renewal plans or urban renewal district plans, if any exist.
- Review your city’s comprehensive plan, if one exists.
- Review your city’s insurance policies that shows the type of coverage, company’s name, expiration date and annual premium.
An effective and timely orientation program can help provide newly elected officials with the kind of information they need to be knowledgeable and effective members of the city council. While these programs are often designed with a new council member in mind, they can also serve as a good refresher course for veteran officials. Here are 10 ideas to consider for your orientation program:
- Encourage attendance at the Municipal Leadership Academy – The Iowa League of Cities’ Municipal Leadership Academy (MLA) is a great opportunity to learn about council roles, municipal finance and budgeting, legal responsibilities, meeting procedures, council effectiveness and many other important issues.
- Provide a copy of the Iowa Municipal Policy Leaders Handbook – The Handbook describes the functions and services of cities as well as the laws governing municipal activities. It helps city officials understand what is expected and required of them by explaining both the details and the big picture involved in being a municipal policy leader. It also contains tips and lists of resources useful to city officials. (Participants of MLA receive a copy of the Handbook as part of their registration)
- Be prepared, and be timely – The orientation activities may take several sessions and a fair amount of time. Put together an agenda to make the best use of the available time. Prioritize the important points to be presented and have the right people at the sessions who can best explain the various issues.
- Provide an organizational overview – The mayor, city manager, city clerk and/or key staff should provide important information about the overall organization and key city issues. Items that should be covered include the organizational structure, budget and finances, emergency preparedness, citizen complaint process, and current city issues.
- Review council meeting processes and procedures – Set up a meeting with the mayor, city manager, city attorney and/or city clerk and the new council members to review and discuss important council meeting processes and procedures.
- Provide important city documents – Provide documents such as the city budget, a detailed city map, staff directory, council goals and priorities, strategic plan, comprehensive plan, and calendar of council meetings and other city events.
- Tour city facilities – A tour of city buildings and operations can be very informative and useful to newly elected officials. They can observe city operations and ask questions about different aspects of city activities. Tours can also provide the opportunity for new council members to meet many of your city employees in an informal setting.
- Start providing new members with council materials right away – Even though their terms may not start until January, provide new members with complete council information packets right away. Inform them about new developments and issues. Many cities hold goal setting or budget planning sessions in November or December – be sure the new members are invited to participate.
- Continue orientation and training opportunities – No matter how comprehensive the orientation program, it is not possible to provide a complete briefing on all facets of city issues, activities and programs. Take advantage of additional training opportunities from the Iowa League of Cities, regional leagues, councils of governments, etc. Encourage new members to ask questions – they cannot be expected to know all the answers immediately.
- Treat all new members equally and maintain neutrality when providing information about city operations.
Jeff Schott, Program Director for the Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Iowa, provided information for this page