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Harlan: What I learned working at City Hall

October 27, 2012|By Jeffrey Harlan

Early in my career, and after a brief stint working for the Los Angeles city attorney, I served for three years as a deputy to a Los Angeles city council member.

To some, this may have seemed like an unusual career move. Why would an attorney, with a specialty in environmental and land-use law, want to be a low-level government employee helping a district of more than 235,000 people in a city of almost 4 million?

I had always been drawn to public-interest work, enjoyed being part of a diverse team and wanted to learn how public policy was made and implemented on the ground. I figured I was young enough that, if things didn't work out, I could afford to make a mistake. And, I really needed a job.

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Ultimately, it was a great decision. That experience — a practical, graduate degree in government administration and community development — formed the cornerstone of how I approach my professional work and my views on governance.

So here are a few things I learned about government working at the grassroots community level, as well as from within City Hall.

1.) Every constituent counts. While my primary responsibility initially was to handle larger, communitywide issues, I could not escape responding to individual constituent concerns. And they ran the gamut — pothole repair, illegal parking, noise complaints (usually dogs, sometimes neighbors), request to install speed humps, request to remove speed humps, et cetera.

As mundane or ridiculous as some of these requests may have seemed, I was obligated to respond with a high level of professionalism — timely, efficiently and with respect. As the councilwoman's representative, I was her proxy out in the community, and my demeanor, judgment and style were a direct reflection upon her.

Sure, some of our constituents were challenging, and some disagreed with the council member's policy positions. Even if we engaged in heated debates with our constituents, we didn't talk to them dismissively, call them names, or belittle them. They were part of the community the councilwoman was elected to serve and deserved the same consideration as anyone else.

2.) The best decisions come from collaboration. I had the pleasure of working with the vibrant and irreverent community of Venice, where the mix of people, interests and points of view offered brilliance and frustration in equal measure. Tying together the diversity was one constant thread — these people knew their neighborhoods best.

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