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How Local Government Decisions Are Really Made

People often seem surprised by the decisions local public officials make. It’s not uncommon to hear community residents say, “What the heck were they thinking about when they …???” Since I enjoyed the privilege of a lengthy career in local government, I was able to personally observe the process many local government bodies used to make their difficult decisions. From what I saw, most local public officials went through a rigorous process involving five distinct steps. This article will attempt to explain the sequence of these five steps used in the local government decision-making process.

Since I never worked in state government or in Washington DC, I do not feel qualified to address how state and federal officials make their decisions; however, I am inclined to think they follow a similar process. An example that will be easy for us to follow would be the purchase of a new vehicle for law enforcement. Below is how I saw such a decision made, time and time again, in local government.

1. The local government officials would make a Logical Comparison. They would compare all vehicles on the market which would include – two-seated convertibles, two-door coupes, four-door sedans, station wagons, minivans, and 4-wheel drive SUV’s. Since law enforcement vehicles occasionally engage in high speed pursuits, the elected officials would agree pickup trucks and minivans would not be logical for pursuits do to their high centers of gravity. However, the remaining vehicles: two-seated convertibles, two-door coupes, station wagons, four-door sedans, and 4-wheel drive SUV’s would still be considered.

Most elected bodies based on further logical deduction would then rule out two-seaters, two-door coupes and station wagons as they are not desirable for transporting individuals or evidence. That left four-door sedans and SUV’s as logical choices.

2. Once local officials made their logical comparison, they proceeded to an Economical Evaluation. Purchasing either vehicle involves money. The sedan might cost $20,000 and the SUV may be $25,000; however, other factors would be considered such as the vehicles’ average annual maintenance costs and their projected resale values. In addition, northern communities hit by frequent winter storms might see a cost if they were not able to respond during periods of inclement weather.

3. Now, whichever body design the public officials choose, they must now progress to the third step in their decision-making process – Political Considerations. Even though they have agreed on a body design, they must now consider the manufacturer’s source. There are a variety of automakers: Chevrolet, Ford, Buick, Cadillac, etc., plus the foreign automakers such as Honda, Nissan, Lexus and Hunyadi etc. All make quality vehicles. In this third step, elected officials must weigh the “political” impact of their decision. How would it look if they spent American tax dollars on vehicles made by a foreign corporation? Should not tax dollars they spend go into American coffers rather than foreign? (Traditionally, local public officials purchase “American made” vehicles).

4. The fourth step in their decision-making process is – Emotional Factors. Every local public official brings their personal values to board and council meetings. Their life experiences and the lessons they learn all impact the rationale they use to make decisions. Since they have selected a body design and a source for the manufacturer, they must now decide whether to purchase a Chrysler, General Motors, or a Ford Motor Company product.

If an elected official had a bad experience with one of these auto manufacturers (let’s say Chrysler), that experience is emblazoned in his or her memory. Never will they vote to purchase any product made by Chrysler; therefore, the elected body must now choose between either a GM or Ford Product.

5. Since the elected local body has progressed through the first four steps in the decision- making process (logic, economics, political consideration and emotional factors); it now progresses to the final step the EM3 Tradition. Seasoned public officials know from experience that regardless of what vehicle they decide to purchase, a large handful of their constituents will not be pleased so they defer to a time tested tradition that permits them to make a decision that involves no political bias or personal prejudice. The EM3 tradition is administered quickly provides a solution acceptable to most board or council members. The EM3 tradition is simple all it involves is for a few of public officials to harmoniously chant so age-old words “enee menee minee mo.” And that, my friends, is how the vast majority of critical decisions are made in our local governments.

If you agree with my assessment will you let me know? Likewise if you disagree I sure would like to know why.

Have a wonderful day!

Gabe Gabrielsen


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Gabe Gabrielsen

Dick – have no idea what “Sausage” refers to but I like you feedback stating “Good Post”.

Gabe Gabrielsen

robert bregoff

You omitted the paragraph about campaign contributions, nepotistic tendencies, and golf buddies. And that the fairest, most logical decisions are often over-ruled by a higher elected official because he owns GM stock, or goes to Rotary Club meetings with the Chrysler dealer, or one of the reasons listed in the previous sentence.

Welcome to the new normal.

Gabe Gabrielsen

Bob, you bring up some interesting thoughts. I can honestly say I never saw any of the issues you raised occur during any of my watches in Local Government .

I worked with numerous counties, cities, townships. villages, boroughs, parishes and school boards and never did I see or hear of a “locally elected public official” engage in the issues you cite. Granted I never worked for a state or federal body nor did I who in any of the top 10 counties in the Country i.e. L.A., Orleans, Miami, Dade, Cook, Hennepin, Dallas etc. where maybe your concerns surface.

I sincerely believe 99.9% of local officials are reputable and honest in all their dealings. Most are individuals who really want to help their communities. Unfortunately, I am sad to say 50% of the people I saw in local public offices quickly discovered they were in over their head. The responsibilities of local governance are so much more than most people think – especially those who candidates for office and running a campaign.