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Published on Friday, January 20, 2017

Inside advice from legislators who’ve been in your shoes

Meeting in the Capitol Building last week, nearly 90 mayors, managers and administrators from around the state were treated to a display of straight talk from their former peers. A senator and two representatives representing both political parties, each of whom previously served as elected local officials, offered insights and advice about how to engage constructively in the Olympia legislative process. Legislators reminded us of the basics – get to know our legislator before they come to town, share local priorities in a clear and concise way, and staying in touch throughout the year.

Additionally, they addressed these valuable points.

  • These legislators learned a great deal and valued their time “in the trenches” in city hall or the county courthouse. Those experiences of solving problems and making decisions that affect the lives of residents and businesses prepared them well for their new roles. It also reinforces their belief in the value of cities, what mayors and councilmembers face and are responsible for, and why it is so critical to nurture and sustain a strong city-state partnership.
  • Legislators acknowledged that this is going to be a long and contentious session and the number one job is to address the McCleary K-12 funding challenges. That does not mean other issues do not need attention or are not important, or that what appears to be early partisan posturing cannot be overcome.
  • Legislators discussed the differences working in the far less overtly partisan environment of local government as compared to Olympia. The same qualities that help local leaders succeed are valuable and needed more than ever, particularly because legislators are organized to work in partisan silos. It is critically important to listen, build relationships with peers, work towards win-win rather than “gotcha” outcomes, know how to count votes, understand when compromise is needed, and how not to personalize differences of opinion. It is also “ok” that on some issues, values matter most and differences may not get resolved easily or quickly.

Knowing that little of interest to cities will be addressed until the education-funding impasse can be resolved, our guests used the 2015 agreement on a new gas tax to illustrate how big issues can be fixed. Like the education funding problem, the need to invest more in our transportation systems was recognized long before it was addressed. It took several years of back and forth proposals and countless meetings of a small set of dedicated legislators from each caucus to construct a proposal that could pass. It also took divergent interests to rally for its passage and that the package had something for just about everyone.

Our guests felt there is hope for areas of agreement this session. It will take patience, determination and a willingness to compromise. They did not sugarcoat the difficulty of getting to agreement, nor the peril to things cities and others need if they fail.

They concluded by encouraging local officials to consider serving your community by running for the Legislature and that their experiences “in the trenches” is enabling them to work across the aisle and rotunda to get agreement on issues that matter.