It is a new year and we begin with a reconstituted City Council. We realize that the collaborative work of the Council, our City Manager Mark Prestwich and our Executive Staff may largely be a mystery to many. It takes countless hours of coordinated work by members of the Council, Mark and our staff to set the agendas for our regular Council meetings, to say nothing of our numerous special meetings, workshops and closed sessions. The time seems right for us to give the community a “behind the scenes” look at how we work together.
As a priority early in the year, we happily joined Council Member Mary Koberstein in welcoming and fully integrating Anna Chouteau and David Knudsen into the Council. At a half-day governance workshop designed to strengthen the effectiveness of our Council/management team, we learned more about each other and the reasons we all chose to serve. We discussed aspects of high-performance governance and norms, including our role as policy makers who leave implementation to staff. We confirmed that the reputation we collectively aspire to achieve must be grounded in respect, professionalism, competence, balance, transparency, community focus and civility. We also discussed the significant challenges and opportunities that St. Helena faces. Our Executive Staff joined us later in the governance workshop, and we discussed what’s going well in our working relationship, what we can do to improve as a team and how we can strengthen our relationship with the community.
The Council then conducted a special meeting in early February to update the full Council and the community on the ambitious list of major projects currently underway. Obviously, these important projects will move forward under our existing workplan. Additionally, in closed sessions, we’ve worked to inform Anna and David on our litigation matters and the strategies undertaken to address them.
Last year we focused on identifying our overarching goals, creating an organized structure to achieve desired results and ensuring that the work we do is directly linked to our community vision: “St. Helena will strive to be economically sustainable, and continue to be a family-friendly, diverse and safe community which prudently manages its financial and human resources, continues to upkeep and improve its infrastructure, ensures its water security, provides a full range of housing, business, cultural and recreational opportunities and embraces and retains its small-town character, beautiful natural environment and high quality of life.”
As we move forward together in 2019, it is important for the community to understand that this Council is fully focused and fully engaged. We are committed to the three-year overarching goals that we established in late 2017. We are focused on the workplan we set in motion to achieve these goals. All of our overarching goals — economic sustainability, infrastructure improvement and maintenance, affordable housing, good governance, partnership building and collaboration and youth and family well-being — are tied directly to our vision. We continue to have a clear path that allows for focused and proactive decision-making.
Our goal of enhancing youth and family well-being was added this year, but most of our carry-over list of 70 objectives is already well under way. From our perspective, it is self-evident that most of these initiatives must continue toward completion. However, given the progress we have been making, and our understanding of the work that lies ahead, this year we determined that we needed to do more than simply rank the carry-over list of objectives from last year and list of ongoing projects. To truly hone our workplan, our objectives require re-working, streamlining and re-prioritization. Since our initial goal setting workshop, some of us have been working individually with Mark on that effort. Expect to see our focused workplan at our Feb. 26 Council meeting.
On major issues, the Council primarily works with Mark and our Executive Staff through temporary two-member Council subcommittees. We are on call to meet with Mark as needed, often one or more times a week depending on the subject and the work flow. As a result, the Council is more engaged and informed, and our agendas and staff and consultant work products are much more focused and beneficial.
As policy makers, we have set high expectations for our Executive Staff to implement the overarching goals advanced in 2017 and 2018, but we also understand the capacity constraints that come with a small town and limited staff. Going forward, we remain committed to providing the tools needed to achieve our goals and projects in the pipeline. For example, months ago we recognized the need to hire Mark an assistant and urged him to give it consideration. We have empowered both Mark and our Executive Staff to adjust, restructure and prioritize as necessary because we have full faith and confidence in their ability to deliver.
Many of the major issues we are now tackling are interrelated. We recognize, for example, that decisions that flow from SHAPE can impact downtown business and further advance our housing objectives. The cost to fund SHAPE, infrastructure, housing, parks and open space and our downtown streetscape is significant. We need to understand and evaluate the value and potential of our City assets so that we are in a position to leverage and coordinate our efforts and achieve the best results.
To maintain accountability, Mark checks in with the full Council at regularly scheduled intervals to report on workplan progress. We readjust timelines in the face of emergencies or unforeseen issues as needed. One of Mark’s attributes that we valued most highly when we decided to hire him in mid-2017 is his demonstrated willingness and ability to take policy direction from the Council, formulate a workplan, and get things done.
As Yogi Berra is reputed to have said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you will wind up somewhere else.” This Council has a pretty good idea where it is going, and we look forward to a very busy and productive 2019.
Editor’s Note: Geoff Ellsworth is St. Helena’s mayor and Paul Dohring is the city’s vice mayor.