Getaway time. We all look forward to it. No one ever gets enough of it.
Getaway time for most of us comes in the form of a vacation. For local elected officials, it comes during a town’s annual planning retreat. Those retreats vary in length. Knightdale’s was just half a day. Garner’s leadership met for two days straight. Wendell and Zebulon met for an entire day.
In some ways, governemnts aren’t all that different than families. We all rush to the next event or put out the next fire. It’s hard to back up from the daily calendar and assess how we’re doing as a family. Are the kids shouldering the right amount of responsibility? Are we, as parents instilling the values we want our children to learn? Are we saving enough for retirement? How can we manage this crazy daily schedule more efficiently so we can have more time to do fun stuff or spontaneous stuff? Are we really eating right?
Local governments have the same problems. Staff and elected leaders run from one meeting to the next. They talk about all manner of disparate topics, from police and parks and recreation issues to human resources and budget matters. It’s hard when you spend your time in silos to see the whole farm. Is the town really focusd on its weaknesses? Are residents and taxpayers being served as well as they can be. Is the town properly prepared for problems that might not raise their heads for several years? Are we taxing property owners too much? Do we have the proper number of workers to accomplish our goals as a town?
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The retreat is a time to answer some of those big-picture questions. Because they aren’t usually held on a weeknight when most people want to take care of busines and get home, there’s more time to be expansive and to throw out what might seem to be an oddball question or suggestion.
At the very best retreats, the town staff goes home with a list of eight or 10 priorities to work on over the course of the year. It’s always interesting to watch as those issues come back to the board or council throughout the year after the staff has had time to prepare plans and gets ready to implement the wishes of their elected leaders.
But retreats are interesting for other reasons most notably that they are an incubator for out-of-the-box ideas.
I once attended a retreat in another town where one commissioner suggested that the local fire department, which was independent of the town, should come under the town’s control. That was a novel idea, especially in an era when town’s aretrying to divest of fire department responsibilities. The idea wasn’t discussed a great length that day, but as the town began preparing for its budget later that year, lo and behold, there was a suggestion from the town manager to bring the fire department under the town’s management.
At other retreats, we’ve seen towns agree to focus energy and resources on their downtown, invest in economic development efforts and even build gigantic parks.
Whatever the focus that comes from a retreat, it’s great to be able to think about the big picture.