A Misconception


There’s a misconception many people have about what it means to be an elected official. I’d include myself in that group, up until four years ago, before I actually was elected and started doing the job.

When I ran for library board, I talked about my personal relationship to libraries — why I love and cherish them, and think they’re important and worth protecting. (This part, I think is good. People who run for office should care about the office and what it does.)

I also threw out a bunch of ideas I had about how to make the library better — things like pop-up libraries! library of things! makerspace! People got excited about that kind of thing at candidate forums, and that probably helped me get elected, but in retrospect, it shouldn’t have. Not that those ideas aren’t fine (and to be fair, they did give voters a sense of my vision for what the library should be), but the concrete specifics of my ideas ended up being almost irrelevant to the job of being on the board.

It turns out that mostly you’re not actually championing a lot of new initiatives when you’re serving on the board. You spend the first year basically learning the job and getting oriented. By the second year, you have a sense of the shape of the budgeting year, the larger pressures and constraints (with schools, for example, there’s a lot of state and federal regulations they contend with; for all institutions, there are salaries and pensions that generally are the bulk of your budget, leaving you much less discretionary room than the public generally realizes).

I started thinking about serving on the board as ‘shoving the elephant.’ Government — even small, local government — is a large, ponderous beast. It moves very slowly.

(If you prefer a sailing metaphor, if you’re in a little one-person sailboat, you can trim your sails and adjust quickly to the wind, sudden hazards, etc. If you’re a giant metal troop carrier, well, you’ve got a lot of momentum shoving you in one direction, and it’s going to take a long time to turn, even a little bit. You just hope for no surprise icebergs. Or pandemics.)

When you’re on the board, you’re one of seven people trying to shove the elephant. (The staff, I suppose, are the ones riding the elephant, trying to keep it going in its current direction? I’m not saying the metaphor is perfect.)

It’s really rare that you, by yourself, can get the elephant to go anywhere. Not impossible — maybe you’re the board member who comes in, sees a problem in the spreadsheets or an opportunity that’s been neglected, and you point it out. And hey, you’re lucky, everyone else enthusiastically gets on board, and then hooray, you’re all shoving together. The seven board members (plus the management staff) actually CAN shove the elephant pretty effectively…though it’s still usually slow.

(For an example, one thing I worked on at the library was a push to raise the pay of our lower-level staff; I thought it was unconscionable that we weren’t paying all our library staff a decent wage. When I raised the question, the rest of the board wasn’t against the idea in theory. But still in practice, it ended up taking three months of meetings and staff work to figure out how we could make some improvements (among other things, getting something like forty employees enough hours so they and their families qualified for health insurance), taking into account compression and potential resentment, trying to do this without raising taxes (which we managed through a complicated series of moves), setting appropriate expectations for this being a one-time equity adjustment, etc. Slow.)

More often, it doesn’t go that well. If you want big change, you’re going to have a few board members who agree with you pretty quickly, and others who don’t, and then it’s a question of whether you can get a majority. Four people is enough to shove the elephant, but if there are still three dead set against it — well, the staff’s not going to be so motivated to pour time and energy into rethinking everything they do. They’re going to rightly suspect that there’s a good chance that when the new folks come in at the next election, the majority will swing the other way. So the elephant is digging in its heels, and it’s not moving very far, if at all.

My point is, when you’re looking at local elections, the public often wants the board to answer really fine-grained questions of practice and policy. There’s a particular thing that has hurt them or their family, and they want the board to fix the thing. Often, that isn’t actually something that gets fixed at the board level.

When I met with our library director before running, I asked him what he’d want to tell an incoming board member, and he said to remember that we weren’t librarians. We weren’t there to do the librarians’ jobs (and in fact, we weren’t qualified to do so).

The board members aren’t going to be the ones deciding exactly what hours the library should be open. But they do control the budget, and they may authorize prioritizing more hours, or hours that are more conducive to families with two working parents or a single parent, and the librarians in management then research what that will cost and figure out how to get it done. (And what will be sacrificed in exchange, to make it possible.)

The board safeguards the mission of the institution, and sets budget priorities that ensure that mission is being met, as well as possible. Traditionally, boards have tended to be fiscally conservative, seeing it as their job to keep the good things we have in good shape for the current and the future.

More politically progressive board members usually try to balance that fiscal responsibility with a push for greater equity — asking who is being served and who is being neglected, for example. Are resources distributed equally, and are those in most need getting the resources they need to be successful?

It’s not as simple as ‘every citizen gets the same amount of cash allocated to their needs’ — if it were, we wouldn’t bother to build expensive elevators; we’d just tell everyone they had to figure out how to use the stairs, or do without. But if every single library patron can’t get to the second floor, where all the computers are, then you don’t have equity.

So when you’re attending candidate forums, I’d like to urge you not to focus too much on concrete specifics — if you ask a Village candidate whether they’d vote against the Albion building, or a D200 school board candidate whether they’re in favor of a giant pool — honestly, they almost certainly have no idea.

They probably have some ideas, as a private citizen, but they likely haven’t done the research on that particular policy question (the costs, the alternatives, the benefits) to be able to give a real answer, and they may not learn enough to answer it until they’ve been elected and read through months of reports and board minutes. (Or maybe they do know about the pool, but they have no idea what the drama kids need, or what part of the budget goes to special ed., etc. They’re not subject matter experts in everything the institution does.)

This is why it’s important to focus on questions like these, which really come down to who the candidates are as people, and what kind of vision they bring to the board table:

  • do they have integrity?
  • are they committed to transparency?
  • can they think hard about complex ideas?
  • can they articulate those thoughts clearly to the public?
  • are they already thinking about balancing the needs of multiple constitutiencies, knowing that there will never be enough money to satisfy everyone?
  • are they willing to make hard and possibly unpopular financial choices, for the greater good?
  • do they care about equity, and a fair playing field for all?
  • will they do the work, which is often tedious, painstaking, and exhausting (and often for an unpaid volunteer position in local elections)
  • do they understand that they are holding lives in their hands, and do they treat that trust with the seriousness it deserves?

That’s my take on it, anyway — this is how I try to assess the people I’m going to vote for. I hope this helps clarify the distinctions between what the board does, and what staff does, and helps you decide what’s important to you when you vote.