Rosenblum: Mayors handbook a breath of fresh air in nutty race

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 21, 2013 - 9:11 PM

Two questions for the 35 candidates in the Minneapolis mayoral race: Have you read the Minnesota Mayors Handbook? Have you heard of the Minnesota Mayors Handbook?

Having stumbled upon the 80-page handbook myself, I highly recommend it to anyone running for office, never running for office, planning to vote in two weeks, or just wishing for clarity around that magnificent, mysterious concept called leading.

If you’re short on time, just read Chapter Four, titled “Mayoral Leadership.” It lists six “key traits of successful mayors” and it’s an eye-opener.

More on that in a minute.

The handbook is published and updated by the League of Minnesota Cities for the Minnesota Mayors Association. Close to 850 member cities belong to the League (www.lmc.org), turning to its legal advisers for tips on running meetings, data practices laws and dealing with unruly citizens.

But if the daily duels we’re exposed to are modern politics as usual, the manual represents politics as it could be. While it pertains to mayors, that job title could be exchanged with many others:

Senator. President. Teacher. Parent. CEO.

“It’s easy to understand why a person would be excited about becoming a newly elected or appointed mayor,” the manual begins. “It’s a terrific hallmark in one’s life. Serving a city says a lot about a person’s sense of public responsibility!”

(Yes, exclamation point is included.)

“But being a mayor isn’t easy,” it continues, “and it’s only natural that a new mayor would on occasion feel intimidated. … Even if the mayor and council do everything right, they may receive little gratitude, all the while being overworked and underpaid.

Enter the Minnesota Mayors Handbook.

Staff lawyers credit the gentle, personal-coaching tone to Jim Miller, the league’s executive director for 21 years. Miller “is the conscience of the league” and the inspiration for much of the handbook’s content, said staff counsel Ed Cadman. “He believes these things so wholeheartedly.”

These things include the idea that taking a firm stand on a stadium or racial disparities or light rail is understandably important to voters. But taking a stand doesn’t make the top six.

“Not surprisingly, I and a number of our staff have been cognizant for many years that government is more art than science,” said Miller, a former city manager in Minnetonka and, before that, Des Moines. He knew in high school that he’d devote his professional life to public service.

“Effective leadership,” Miller said, “is as much about bringing an ethical commitment and a sense of overall responsibility to the public good.”

Miller knows that many voters just want to hear whether or not the candidate is going to cut their property taxes. But at the league’s annual conference for newly elected officials, Miller continues to mix budgeting discussions “with a heavy dose of aspirational leadership content. I don’t think it’s either-or.”

The handbook came about five or so years ago, Cadman said, “to inspire leaders to be inspiring leaders.” He appreciates that different forms of city organizations, as well as different city sizes, will lead to different challenges. “You’re going to see strong-armed politics in the bigger cities. That’s natural.”

The manual, to which Cadman contributed, aims to speak to cities large and small. “It’s an outlier,” he said, “the most evangelistic animal” on the otherwise straightforward website.

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