Patrick Wojahn wears many hats– cyclist, advocate, and mayor, among others. In his dual roles as Director of Government Relations for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and Mayor of College Park, Maryland, Wojahn brings a unique perspective to both sides of the government affairs equation.
By day, Wojahn is meeting with legislators on Capitol Hill for Rails-to-Trails, but by night (and early mornings) he is back in College Park taking meetings, attending events, and listening to his constituents.
Here are three things Wojahn says you need to know for making an impact at the local level.
For many elected officials, their position within the government (usually at the state or local level) is not necessarily a full-time job. As a result, there are unique dynamics within each city and town with regards to who to go to for different issues or requests. In College Park, this predominantly includes the mayor, the city council, and the city manager.
“We have a city manager system and as mayor my main role is to facilitate over the city council while we have the city manager who is in charge of our day-to-day conversation,” Wojahn said. “Essentially I’m part of the city council. My role is to help set the agenda, to chair the meetings, to work to try and build a cohesive city council that works together and sets its priorities and makes sure we move forward on our important priorities.”
The city manager, meanwhile, is responsible for implementation of council policies and oversight of city services. The dynamics between these different roles should be a key consideration for organizations looking to make an impact at the local level. Different policies or issues require pressure at different points in the advocacy process at the local level.
This goes for both sides—a government relations professional and the elected official. From a GR perspective, this means having deeper awareness of the other side to the issue you're advocating for and being respectful of the need to weigh opinions.
“[As mayor], I appreciate a recognition that there are two sides to every issue and that there are people also in most cases advocating on the opposite side of the issue as well,” Wojahn said. “I appreciate advocates who have a greater understanding of that. Also, just to be respectful, not to be too strident, to be passionate.”
Wojahn has learned in his years as mayor the importance of weighing both sides of an argument.
“An elected official can be an advocate for certain budgets but generally speaking your role as an elected official is to be a decision maker and play both sides of an issue,” Wojahn said. “If [the mayor] comes in as too much of an advocate then people think they have an agenda. You need to be more of an arbiter, more of a neutral party.”
With cognizance of both sides of the relationship, it can be easier to foster change at the local level.
While Wojahn leads the way in College Park, his mayoral activity doesn’t stop at the city border. Wojahn consistently collaborates with other mayors.
In the DC metropolitan area, this happens through groups such as the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments which brings together city officials to share ideas and information regarding challenges faced in the region.
At the national level, Wojahn serves as a board member on the National League of Cities, which as Wojahn describes, “brings together leaders from municipalities around the country to work together on influencing federal policy in a way that benefits municipalities and our residents.”
Whether your organization is focused on a regional issue or a nationwide conversation, it’s important to be aware of the relationships local officials share beyond their municipality. That way, you can both get out ahead of your issue or tap into a coalition of local officials to support your policy goals.
If your organization is looking to shape the conversation at the local level it’s important to identify who the decision makers are, how they weigh input, and what outside influences play a role in impacting their decision. With more and more attention being placed at the local level, these considerations can go a long way towards improving your organization's approach to local government monitoring.