Posted By: Warren Kraft, Assistant City Attorney/HR Director, West Bend, Wisconsin
As municipal attorneys, we tend to be generalists with perhaps one or two areas of the law where we try to specialize. Some liken us to our family doctor, who is trained to diagnose and refer when needed. Oftentimes, we find ourselves in interesting situations if only because we need to be the quick study we told our interviewers that we pride ourselves on.
Take, for example, interviewing the prospective municipal employee. Gifted as we may be in the deposition and trial setting, our skill to ask questions may sometimes take a back seat because the interview setting is designed for different purposes. [Consider this passage: “Is the job interview The Moment of Truth? Nah. The Land of Bunk is more like it. Never have more stupid questions been answered with the same repetitive drivel as in the job interview.” From “The New Interview”, Ask the Headhunter, by Nick A. Corcodilos. ] Presumably, when advising the personnel director and the interview team, the municipal attorney can provided guidance about the legality of certain questions and data gathering. If one googles “Do’s and Don’ts” & “Interview Questions,” one receives nearly 300 relevant “hits,” more or less from the prospective employee perspective.
The Student Employment Center of Mott Community College lists 20 Do’s and nine Don’ts. [http://www.mcc.edu/14_ces/ces_interview_do_dont.shtml] There is a small link to appropriate dress on the same page. Based on one recent interviewee’s appearance, this instructive piece could have addressed this item. Though the candidate wore a sport coat, the faded pink Ralph Loren shirt was untucked and also revealed a grey T-shirt with a navy blue neck band. The receptionist staff wondered if the candidate could find a better pair of jeans which even featured a tear in the back. Perhaps the candidate’s student placement service can feature this link on its university website for future reference. [http://www.quintcareers.com/dress_for_success.html]
In that same interview, the candidate’s reaction to successfully answering a technical question required stifling immediate reaction. A fist-pump accompanied an exclamation, “Alright, I nailed it!” As the candidate sat down again, the interviewers heard, “I am so pumped. I don’t care how the rest of the interview goes.” The interview continued, if only because there was a set list of questions asked of each candidate. Most of us would safely assume the fist pump and exclamations of self-satisfaction wait until the candidate is out of earshot, if not completely out of the building.
However, there is one interview question that might give municipal attorneys pause, not just because some may find themselves seeking new venues, but perhaps because it can provide a reflective opportunity as to the attorney’s value to the organization and to its customers. “What is your greatest weakness?”
In a recent article in “Managing Your Careers” [©2009 Dow Jones & Company], JoAnn S. Lublin said that it is a question designed to make a monkey out of the candidate. She wrote, “A careful game plan could help you cope with the shortcoming query in a way that highlights your fit for a desired position. … Career specialists suggest you take stock of your weaknesses, focusing on job-related ones that won’t impede your ability to perform your duties.”
In the day-to-day activities, municipal lawyers can become targets for all sorts of barbs tossed their way. A critic may say that it is the attorney’s sole job to say “no” as if it was an anti-drug use campaign. Another critic might proffer that the municipal lawyer’s primary purpose is to find the loopholes, a chink in the armor. Regardless of issue, the criticism attempts to showcase a weakness in performance, skill, ability or talent that challenges the practitioner more than an interview question. The challenge ought to bring the practitioner back to the reason for seeking the particular position during the interview process.
Corcodilos further writes, “Your worth is what makes an employer want to hire you. Your worth is determined by the value you offer the employer. That means you have to take the initiative in your job hunt. An employer cannot extract value from you — you must offer it. You can only offer value if you know what is valuable to the employer. …”
The family doctor offers a value that keeps the patient coming back. So does the municipal attorney, one of the many reasons for continuing to practice in this legal field.
Maybe that is worth a fist pump!
Posted By: Warren Kraft, Assistant City Attorney/HR Director, West Bend (Wisconsin)
Winter’s grip always tightens in mid-January. The gloom-and-doom weather forecasters predict dangerous wind chills additional to bouts of two-to-five inch snowfalls this week, sometimes strong enough winds to create blizzard-like conditions where metropolitan communities still struggle to remove the after effects of record-setting December snowfalls. And, still to come: the annual news items concerning Seasonal Affective Disorder.
So, the other day, trying to reach my daughter on her cellphone, I could only leave messages. Text messages (yes, I learned how to do that recently) also went unanswered. When she finally connected on her boyfriend’s phone, I heard the ever-frequent reason that her cellphone died. Haven’t you heard of a charger, honey, I asked as sweet as I could to mask my frustration. But, Dad, she replied in her customary you-are-sometimes-so-dumb response, don’t you know that you’re suppose to run out the charge on your battery before recharging it, so it doesn’t keep failing.
Oh, for the days of rotary dial phones, with one party-line coming into the house, so we kids could eavesdrop on our Dutch speaking neighbors’ conversation. Not that we could understand a word of it, but the language sounded so “cool” compared to what we spoke.
And, so it is that the David Brown story in Monday’s WASHINGTON POST caught my eye: Cellphones’ Growth Does a Number on Health Research. His lead sentence reads, “In our information-crazy, never-out-of-touch world, it’s becoming harder and harder to find out who we are and what we do.”
In a column reminiscent of last fall’s presidential election polling, it appears that the health researchers also face difficulty tracking down and contacting eligible survey participants. “Cellular telephones are perhaps the biggest threat to survey data that epidemiologists have confronted in years,” Mr. Brown wrote. “Young people, men and Hispanics are all more likely than the “average” American to have cellphones only. But those demographic factors don’t explain everything. Even after they are taken into account by statistical means, cellphone-only users are different.”
He must have met my daughter.
My Water Cooler colleagues helped me navigate to FACEBOOK because the scouts with whom I work advised me last summer that e-mail was SO 20th century, and that if I wanted to contact them quickly for future scout functions and arrangements, I need a FACEBOOK presence. [Most of our adult troop leaders have now joined. And we thought our Yahoo! Group mailing list was chique!] While I tracked down one of my long-lost high school classmates this way, I now have a pending “friend” request from a colleague of the law firm. Something does not seem “right” about that request.
Then, there is texting; my son’s favorite pastime. As others will attest, the most unusual moments occur when he and his friend are texting each other as I am driving them both somewhere, like a restaurant for “free” food (well free to them) and as they sit across the table from each other in between refills from the buffet. Remember how we feel when we get to leave a voice message on the phone of an individual when we really did not want to yet talk to that person? Nowadays, just ignore the text message. “My phone died, Dad, and it doesn’t save the unopened messages.” Or, one of our scouts who texts when he really doesn’t want to talk to us leaders but knows he has to convey some type of message.
Back to Mr. Brown’s article, he continues, “But the problem goes beyond changing technology and responsiveness. It turns out that people answer the same question differently depending on how you reach them — a ‘mode effect’.” Respondents on cellphones answer differently than land-line respondents. “For example, when a group of people with the same age, race and education are called on a conventional phone, 25 percent say they smoke, but on a cellphone 31 percent say they do. On a land line, 38 percent say they have been tested for HIV, while on a cellphone 54 percent say they have.” One researcher, Ali H. Mokdad, an epidemiologist, speculated that people on land lines are usually at home and believe they have a role and image to maintain even though they answer in private. “’They are less likely to say something bad about their own behavior. It’s like ‘This is my house…’, ” Mr. Brown writes.
As I log in to FACEBOOK and see the updates from my “friends,” some have little shame about sharing their own behavior with the Internet community. On the one hand, it is fun to see the New Year ’s Eve pictures of my son celebrating with his girlfriend’s family in the Dominican Republic. And, now, some cellphone users can update their profiles without being at their computers.
Mr. Brown concludes that today’s health survey, something that probably was fairly simple and straightforward in the days of exclusively land-lined homes, is no longer. “It’s a bit like making sausage,” said Christopher J.L. Murray, a University of Washington physician and epidemiologist. “As soon as you start to explore how surveys are made,” he said, “you begin to see how difficult it is to get consistent information at the population level over time.”
Dr. Murray must have heard about my daughter. Do you wonder if they might be FACEBOOK friends?
Or, is it just time to curl up in front of the warming fireplace and wait out the latest gifts of winter from north of “the border?”
Posted by: Warren Kraft, Assistant City Attorney/’HR Director, West Bend, Wisconsin
The column’s headline, from the current issue of Phi Alpha Delta’s “The Reporter” jumps out at me – “What Will Be Your Legacy?” It is a question that we pose to adult scout leaders who participate in an advance leadership training course. The question formed the basis for a reflective conversation with a friend as my one year “retirement” anniversary from the Oshkosh WI city attorney’s office came and went.
In his column about the Municipal Attorney List-serv, Dallas assistant city attorney Don Knight chronicled my personal and professional journeys. As part of the changing political winds in that community, I found myself the target of several unflattering columns by the local newspaper’s executive editor. And so, I was moved out, and I moved on. One of my former co-workers summarized my year of change by saying that while the door to Oshkosh city hall closed behind me that fateful October 2007 day, so many other, just-as-rewarding doors opened up to me. Meanwhile, the executive editor still writes his weekly columns criticial of local government officials, even those council members that his newspaper endorsed for election.
As collegiate journalism students in the early 1970s, we were taught to maintain scrapbooks of our published efforts that we wanted future employers to consider with our applications. I may still have a few of them stashed in the back of the garage attic unless the mice used portions for nesting materials.
So, I wondered to my reflective friend what would my scrapbook look like from these past 12 or so months, compared to what the executive editor could put into his. Though I left the public sector, my “retirement” was anything but private. Whereas his published works would show the same monotonous themes, what would I be able to show my grandchildren?
It would surely include a local newspaper clipping (yes, from THAT local newspaper) of a picture from last summer. One of “my” scouts standing arm in arm with me in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, outside Jackson WY, as part of a national scouting service project to build hiking and biking trails for the US Forest Service. Perhaps, a few scenes from lifeguard instructional classes at the local YMCA last spring, or the swim meets that I continue to annouce. Maybe some of the pictures when “we” installed a new pastor at a church I was assisting. Even a few choice phrases from some of the associates at the Madison WI law firm, where I am now “of counsel” after a summer fulltime stint so I can work fulltime in the public sector again in another community.
Rhona Hill, International Justice of Phi Alpha Delta, asked in her column what positive impact P.A.D. members would have in each stage of their lives as they closed one chapter and moved to the next. She writes about three fundamental principles, that are “indispensible ingredients of the character of the true lawyer.”
“INTEGRITY. Adherence to moral principl and character; honesty, honoor in one’s beliefs and actions. (her emphasis)
“COMPASSION. Deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by suffering or misfortune, accompanied by a stong desire to alleviate the pain or move its cuase.
“COURAGE. The quiality of mind or spirit that enable us to face difficulty, danger and pain, with firmness and without fear.”
Aren’t these some of the attributes that we seek in our friendships, in our personal relationships?
Bill Kearns moderates the Municipal Attorney Water Cooler using rules of conduct embodied in three words: civility, collegiality and courtesy. You can see those attributes played out as we support each other through personal and professional challenges, as friends sharing a common bond.
Would we need standing committees in our bar associations focused solely on encouraging our colleagues to practice these principles?
We teach our scouts “Leave No Trace” principles, in effect, leave the place in better condition than when you found it. Sometime our efforts fall a bit short, but we keep encouraging positive impacts.
IMLA names several of its more significant recognitions, awarded to deserving and oftentimes humbled municipal attorneys, after venerable people. Those individuals, who themselves, leading by principle, attribute and example, form our legacy of public service and commitment. Log in to the Municipal Attorney List and the Water Cooler to witness the continuation of those who have gone before us.
Surely every walk of life has its lunkerheads, but, at a time of the calendar when many people ponder the past, the present and the future, perhaps the operative question for each of us is:
What is in YOUR scrapbook?
Posted by: Warren Kraft, Assistant City Attorney/’HR Director, West Bend, Wisconsin
The use of the “proper” rules of parliamentary procedure is a frequent topic of the Municipal Attorneys List-Serv, and occasionally its Wisconsin counterpart. We debate the theory behind Roberts’ Rules of Order and whether the legal counselor should attempt to angle the legislative body toward a “more appropriate” methodology.
Additionally, many jurisdictions televise the meetings of their local legislative bodies, oftentimes video-taped for replay on the public access channels.
These two apparently disparate topics melded together in recent weeks in a community north of Milwaukee along the western shore of Lake Michigan. As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported in its Nov. 9 editions:
Port Washington Council uses instant replay
Posted: Nov. 9, 2008
Port Washington – Nowadays, it’s commonplace that village board and common council meetings are videotaped and broadcast over local cable systems.
But rarely, if ever, have officials gone to the tape to make sure they got a vote right.
But that’s exactly what the Port Washington Common Council did.
“We zigged when we should have zagged,” City Attorney Eric Eberhardt said.
A frenzied debate to allow boats from the city’s marina to be stored on a city-owned parking lot was at the center of the recent replay debate. The council voted 4-3 to approve the proposal. Doing so would generate up to $4,000 in revenue. But downtown businesses opposed the idea, saying it would be a blight on their picturesque lakefront.
Opponent Ald. Allan Haacke went to Eberhardt after the vote and said the vote had been made inappropriately, violating Robert’s Rules of Order, which is universally accepted as scripture when it comes to running an orderly public meeting.
Like any good referee wanting to get a call right, Eberhardt went to the tape.
And here’s what it showed: Ald. Burt Babcock made a motion to call the question to stop the debate and force a vote. At the same time, Haacke moved to table the issue, which also would stop the debate but postpone any action to a future meeting.
Mayor Scott Huebner’s “head was kind of on a swivel” reacting to the competing motions and other discussion that was going on, “and looked to me for guidance,” Eberhardt said.
Relying on his memory of Robert’s Rules, Eberhardt told Huebner that the motion to call the question should take precedence over all other motions.
So instead of calling for a second to Babcock’s motion to call the question, or even a vote on the motion, the tape showed, Huebner called for a vote on the underlying issue of whether to store boats in the city parking lot. Technically, Eberhardt also found, a motion to table takes precedence over all other motions, with calling the question the next in line.
“The real deficiency was that neither of those motions was seconded,” Eberhardt said.
Eberhardt notified the council of the error, and on Wednesday, aldermen voted to rescind the Oct. 21 vote, then re-voted, this time defeating the proposal 4-3. And, adding more drama, between the first and second votes, the city’s Business Improvement District voted to oppose the measure. That swayed one alderman to switch sides.
What happened in Port Washington is a first for Ed Huck, executive director of the Madison-based Wisconsin Alliance of Cities, and “is demonstrative of new technology serving the public interest.”
Videotaping or audiotaping public meetings is not required by state law, but local governments have chosen to do so, often at great expense, to better serve the public, Huck said.
“Here is a prime example,” Huck said. “All of a sudden, I have this picture of the council president in a striped shirt with his head under a hood, looking at a TV monitor.”
If readers of this blog have not personally experienced this on-the-job frenzy, we surely know of our colleagues who have had to reach into the recesses of their minds and have a ready answer. Many times, we are tempted to ask for a brief recess to research the question but forgo that opportunity as the legislative consideration may increase in intensity. During post-meeting reviews, it is all too easy to offer critiques of how we should or should not have handled an issue.
So, what do we make of Eric’s experience?
First and foremost is the municipal attorney’s constant commitment to “get it right.” On ocassion, it might not be the first time and turning to the tape can help fix the situation. Oftentimes, in my former position, the city clerk and I would exchange puzzled glances about what the council just said or did, and we would “check the tape” the next day. Before cable technology swept over our community, we always had old-fashion analog cassette tape to review.
During other debates, a council member would offer a motion in highly convoluted language, then glance at the city staff dais to ask, “Did you get that?” Many times, we would seek clarification so we understood the concept, the principal effect to help the member’s colleagues also understand what was proferred, and then promise to word it correctly. “Check the tape” before inserting the text into the draft minutes were the next day’s objective. A level of trust and credibility is necessary for this to occur.
A secondly, and almost equally important lesson, is the willingness to listen to the “next-day quarterbacks” who themselves might be befuddled by what occurred the night before. I do not recall any of my professors endorsing use of the phrase, “We zigged when we should have zagged.” We know about colleagues who interpret the call for “further review” as a threat to one’s integrity. There are some quarters where an admission is not viewed as weakness, rather interpreted as enlightenment. Well, maybe just the one time …
Most of us can read between the story’s lines and envison a rather heated debate on the Port Washington City Council floor. In an honest moment, we might even recall a similar situation, or perhaps, situatons, where we ourselves got caught up in the debate and found ourselves stumbling when the “call” came in our direction. At its organizational meeting, my former Council began discussing an item, though related, was not specifically listed on the agenda and as they included me more in the conversation, I found myself more detached from my “watchdog” role. The city clerk turned and whispered that this was not on the docket. It was enough to prompt me to interject that this conversation needed to be deferred until it could be properly posted. And, later in the afternoon, I had to explain myself to the city manager who was absent from that noon hour meeting.
When the end of the day comes, our role as legal advisor is based on credibility. “A frenzied debate” occurred, a parliamentary mistake occurred, and the city attorney responded promptly to “further review” and to make appropriate reports and recommendations. Isn’t it a pleasant read when the result and news report are not heavily weighted with a gotch-ya?
And, keep in your arsenal a now-acceptable legal concept for mid-course corrections: “We zigged when we should have zagged.”