Meeting with a Politician

Every organization has a chain of command not only within the fire department but also in the overall governmental structure of the community. There is always the official position to follow the chain. However, in the real world, responding to a request for something by someone not directly connected to you in the formal chain can be more complicated than it first appears. As with most problems, you need to assess the potential impact and possible outcomes that go beyond the seemingly simple solution to the problem. Now, let’s look at this month’s problem.

Assume you are working in a community with a city manager form of government and you report directly to the city manager. Your community has set a structure that establishes the city manager as the direct report to the city council. The City Charter states this to be the chain of command and, in an attempt to maintain this chain, “prohibits” any member of the council from contacting a department head without the approval of the city manager. In a perfect world, this would happen, and everyone would be content to play by these rules. As we all know, nothing works exactly as anticipated.

(Before I continue with the rest of the story, let me point out that although the intentions of this system are good, there can be harmless contacts with city council members that are in the best interest of the citizens. No one wants to create “red tape” that makes it more difficult to deal with things. In many cases, the simplest issues can be resolved with direct contact.)

You receive a phone call from a council member. He has just had some construction work done and was very pleased with the outcome of the project. The member asks if you can meet for lunch so you can be introduced to the general contractor. You are friends with the council member and have always had a good working relationship. He is a great supporter of the fire department and you personally. Based on your relationship, you agree to the meeting. The problem for this column is “should you?”

Even though no other information regarding the meeting is provided, you have a general idea. In your community, construction companies vie for “board up” business and understand that on occasion the fire department may need to contact a company for a citizen who has experienced a fire and may ask for a recommendation.

Be aware of the hidden dangers. Often, what starts as a seemingly harmless situation can have hidden dangers. Some individuals may take the position of hiding behind the City Charter and inform the council member that they cannot meet. This may be the correct answer in many areas and may be what is expected. You should know some of the basic relationship issues in your community so that if you are faced with this issue, you can be prepared to give the correct answer when you receive the call.

In spite of the “legal” positions that can be taken, in reality in most communities there is an expectation that you will communicate with council members. Because of preexisting relationships, you may be placed in a position to technically violate your Charter in the interest of resolving an issue or not creating an issue in the first place. There is also an organizational cultural issue to consider. What are the expectations within your community? Are department heads given direction on what to do when contacted? Has past history led you to believe that you can talk to council members? These are questions you should have the answers to before something happens.

Keep your boss in the loop. Assuming you accept the meeting, I suggest you contact your boss, the city manager, as soon as you can to explain what has occurred. You certainly would not want to surprise your boss should he find out about the meeting. You also should get advice as to how this should be handled in this instance and in the future. You have an obligation to your boss to disclose the meeting and take any advice you receive.

In most cases, this is most likely an innocent request. Regardless, you need to deal with the perceptions that are created. Anyone seeing you in a meeting with a council member may make certain assumptions. If your boss is unaware, this surprise may lead to some significant questions for you to answer even if the meeting is benign. This is another instance where previously established relationships are a big help when issues arise. Even the best intentioned request can appear to be a little coerced because it came from someone who controls the policy and budget of your organization. Perceptions can be as important as reality! Even if innocently presented, what do you tell a council member who recommends that you consider using someone as a specific contractor? Does this open the door for other requests, not only from this member but others?

If you are directed not to meet by your boss, you shouldn’t. If your boss indicates that he will contact the council member, be prepared. In both instances, you run the risk of offending the council member, especially if the request is sincere and perceived to be relatively innocent. You may receive another call asking you to explain why you reported the meeting to your boss. After all, this was just a friendly contact with no strings attached!

Hopefully, you can see that a small issue can be more complicated than initially thought. Casual conversations can be great at building relationships. These relationships can send signals that the door is always open. Simple requests appear innocent and can cause you to let your guard down. Don’t!

If you are ever presented with this circumstance (being approached outside the chain of command), consider the following actions:

  • Let your boss know. This falls under the “no surprises” rule.
  • Be straightforward with the council member (or whoever approached you). Tell him you will be contacting your boss so he knows what you are doing. Emphasize that this is standard practice and that all bosses like to know what their subordinates are doing.
  • Do not hide behind the Charter. This could place the council member on the defensive and ruin a good relationship.
  • If your boss and the member have no issues with proceeding with the meeting, go ahead with it.
  • At the conclusion of the meeting, close the loop with your boss.

This seems so easy. In some communities, it may be. Know ahead of time what is expected of you. Anticipate that you may be placed in a similar situation. Find out the proper answer in advance. Don’t let an innocent contact become a greater issue.

RICHARD MARINUCCI has been chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department since 1984. He was president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs in 1997-98 and chair of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as senior advisor to Director James Lee Witt of FEMA and acting chief operating officer of the United States Fire Administration for seven months as part of a loan program between the City of Farmington Hills and FEMA. He received the Outstanding Public Service Award from the director for his efforts. Marinucci has three B.S. degrees: in secondary education from Western Michigan University, in fire science from Madonna College, and in fire administration from the University of Cincinnati. He was the first graduate of the Open Learning Fire Service Program at the University of Cincinnati (summa cum laude) and was named a Distinguished Alumnus in 1995.

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