Chapter 5: Troublesome Incumbents & Staff

Machiavelli wrote that there were three courses of action to take in any state that had enjoyed its independence and freedom before being taken over. Think of this ‘independent state’ as your municipality before you were elected. His advice directs you in ways to deal with staff and returning incumbents in order to consolidate your power:

“The first is to ruin them, the next is to reside there in person, the third is to permit them to live under their own laws, drawing a tribute, and establishing within it an
oligarchy which will keep it friendly to you.”

He called this Chapter V: Concerning the Way to Govern Cities or Principalities Which Lived Under Their Own Laws Before They Were Annexed.

In most municipalities, there are boards, committees and staff departments that operate under either lax control or even complete independence. Often they are associated with returning incumbents who enjoyed privileges as members: rights of thought, action and internal management, plus perks, bonuses, and benefits. Appointees given a position by former mayor or council owe their allegiance not to the newcomers, but to the past ruler.

In municipal terms, the mayor can’t have independent councillors or last-term’s appointees executed as in Machiavelli’s day, even if it would solve all the new mayor’s problems. But unless they are dealt with, and dealt with firmly, they will cause problems for the new mayor or council. Machiavelli warns about taking anything but the first path: ruin them. Or at least dismiss them – the modern equivalent of lopping off their head.

And if you can’t dismiss someone, dismiss their subordinates. This is especially effective if you dismiss their favourites or someone they felt was indispensable to their operation.

“Perennial solutions include: …threatening their jobs…cutting their budgets… firing their favourite employees so that they have to work harder and feel guilty while doing so.”
Stanley Bing: What Would Machiavelli Do?

The second way – taking up residence – is difficult. Obviously you can’t put a cot in their department, or board room. A mayor can’t be in every department, or attend every departmental meeting to make sure his or her wishes are being followed.

A mayor sits as ex officio on almost every board and committee, so he or she could take advantage of that and attend every meeting the councillor is assigned to, or that of the troublesome board member.

While his or her presence might help quell any dissension at those boards and limit the power of the rebellious councillors and staff, it is time consuming and exhausting to try to control a sprawling and complex organization like a municipality.

The third path – a regime of trusted supporters who supposedly owe their allegiance only to you – means giving a handful of close councillors or select staff rare privileges and freedoms, and appointments to prestigious boards, so they can implement your goals. But that won’t work for long, either. Giving others power will only elevate them into potential challengers and sooner or later they will want to flex their own muscles, not simply act as yours.

Be Ruthless

Machiavelli points to history, when the Romans conquered Greece and tried to keep it quiet by “making it free and permitting its laws.” But their largesse failed. Faced with rebellion from the Greeks, the Romans were compelled to use force and crush the Greeks, because there was no other option:

“In truth there is no safe way to retain them otherwise than by ruining them.”

No halfway measures allowed. Troublesome councillors, staff or appointees will eventually rebel, Machiavelli warns. They will get public support because they parade themselves as the freedom-loving guerillas fighting against your evil dictatorship. Public opinion will swing their way.

Ruin. Demolish. Destroy. Various translations offer a range of meaning. Machiavelli is offering a second warning here. If you’re not prepared to go all the way, maybe you shouldn’t undertake it. If you want security, if you want to build your own internal support, you won’t be able to stop until the old structure is completely torn down.

You will be ruined by their efforts because you didn’t take the necessary steps to establish yourself and your authority right away:

“He who becomes master of a city accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed by it, for in rebellion it always cries the watch-word of liberty and rallies around its former privileges as a rallying point, which neither time nor benefits from the new ruler will ever cause it to forget.”

The public always seems to like the underdog, especially one who appears to be fighting for the public’s rights. Open clashes between councillor and mayor can also titillate the public because they get plenty of media attention, and disputes add colour and spectacle to the otherwise dry nature of municipal politics.

I have used the underdog approach myself to win public sympathy in spats with a former mayor. It is highly effective for undermining a mayor’s reputation and public image, and boost your own.

Any mayor who wants to preserve his or her image as a leader must be merciless in crushing insubordination and making dissidents impotent. Otherwise rebels like me will get re-elected (and I was) and continue to be a thorn in the mayor’s side.

Problems also arise with those who helped you get into office. Although they appeared initially as allies, if they helped you win by discrediting and demeaning other politicians, they can do the same to you, later.

Unless they were allies before the campaign, they were likely only helping to further their own career. Don’t trust them to side with or defend you, except for personal gain and advancement.

“It is hazardous for the ruler of men to trust others, for he who trusts others will be controlled by others”
Han Fei Tzu: Sec. 17: Precautions Within the Palace

The public always seems to like the underdog, especially one who appears to be fighting for the public’s rights. Open clashes between councillor and mayor can also titillate the public because they get plenty of media attention, and disputes add colour and spectacle to the otherwise dry nature of municipal politics. 

Without the ability to execute the troublemakers, the mayor has to seek other options. He or she can have the rebels sidelined; given unimportant roles, asked to represent the municipality on minor boards, their speaking time at the table controlled and limited, ignored, having your supporters vote against their motions or refuse to second them, present their good ideas as your own, and put them in the back when photo ops arise.

Refer all the dissident’s initiatives to committees for comment, or request a staff report about them. This takes them out of the public eye and slows their progress. Make sure you have allies among those who will review the idea, to further wrap the process in bureaucratic procedures, and keep it behind the scenes as long as possible. Death by committee can be as effective as execution for dealing with rogue council members.

The troublemakers won’t be able to make progress at the table; their public profile will be submerged under yours. Their political reputation and prestige will be in ruins and dependent of the goodwill of the mayor to recover.

While this may make council members impotent in political terms, it will not reduce their animosity towards you, but will likely exacerbate it. They will remember their former role, and their former privileges, and will turn against you and your allies:

“And whatever you may do or provide against, they never forget that name or their former privileges unless they are disunited or dispersed but at every chance they immediately rally to them…”

Spread your potential opponents around, thin their ranks, and keep them busy so they can’t get together easily to conspire against you. Hostile staff and boards can be hobbled with mundane assignments or tasks that further the mayor’s agenda. Keep them too busy to pursue their own goals.

Committees can be populated by people with allegiance to the mayor; even if not the majority, they can use procedure and process to mire the committees in red tape to render them ineffective.

Machiavelli warns that people will resent any effort to curtail their movement or their privileges. When you cannot safely control them, you need to crush their resistance:

“In republics there is more vitality, greater hatred, and more desire for vengeance, which will never permit them to allow the memory of their former liberty to rest; so that the safest way is to destroy them or to reside there himself.”

In other words, these people used you to help dethrone a previous mayor or other councillors: don’t assume they are your allies afterwards. Sideline them, reduce their status and cripple their authority, or better yet: dismiss them.

You have been warned: if left in place, they will turn against you. You can often prevent conspiracies by making a special example of someone or some group, something that sends shivers down the spines of would-be conspirators.

“Those who study the records of ancient times will understand, that after a change in the form of a government, whether it be from a commonwealth to a tyranny or from a tyranny to a commonwealth, those who are hostile to the new order of things must always be visited with signal punishment.”
The Discourses: III ,3

Machiavelli advised destroying the former regime to establish a new one. A mayor and council have other ways to do this without having to lop off heads: they can repeal bylaws, zoning, official plan changes, development agreements and appointments made by the previous council. They can also undo tax increases, lower user fees and development charges the previous government brought in.

Change municipal websites to remove images and acknowledgements of the former council. Replace photographs in town hall, or in your sports hall of fame that show the former council with images of you and the new council. Erase their names outside of necessary official records.

Most of all, a new mayor and council can bring in new staff to replace those appointed by for the former council. Don’t be afraid to wield the scythe and dismiss anyone who stands in your way.

These acts not only stamp the current council’s mark on the municipality, but help erase that of the former council.

Be ruthless. That’s what Machiavelli would do.
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