Jeff Ward: You CAN Fight City Hall ... and Here's How You Do It!
Sage advice on the four "P's" of local politics. Plus: How to behave—and how not to behave—at public meetings.
If this one doesn’t send you scurrying for the fallout shelter, then nothing will. You see, after seven years of plying my craft, a surprising number of potential politicians, elected officials and grassroots group organizers have come to me for counsel on everything from winning an election to saving an iconic building.
Despite the adage that free advice is often worth what it costs, as you might imagine, I'm always willing to throw in my $0.02. Though ironically, more often than not, these “wisdom seekers” only want you tell ‘em exactly what they want to hear.
So in the spirit of the FCC Fairness Doctrine, let’s review the do's and don’ts of effectively engaging the local political process. Because whether it’s your school, village or county board, the tactics you choose can mean the difference between your proposition taking flight or watching it go down in a massive ball of fire.
And the biggest, most-frequently used “don’t” is playing the “gotcha game.” Trust me, this tactic will almost certainly insure your defeat.
For example: if, when speaking at a board meeting, the first thing out of your mouth is, “If you don’t see it our way we’re voting you out of office,” the folks on the dais won't listen to a single thing after that sentence.
School board members are paid nothing, alderman are paid nearly nothing, and most county board members put in far more hours than their salary requires. I’ve said it before: Threatening to throw those specific bums out of office is like threatening to stop beating them with a 2-by-4.
It may not always seem like it, but the vast majority of public officials are well aware of their political mortality.
Ah! But if you employ humor, you can get away with reminding them of it. Something like, “I’d threaten to throw you out of office, but I realize the prospect of setting you free of all this would probably make you vote against us,” works much better
They’re so inured to being blasted that if you can make them laugh, you’re already halfway there.
The second-most-common form of gotcha is to raise that single superior finger as you pound the podium with your other fist exclaiming, “Aha! Your 12th cousin 18 times removed stands to gain $17.37 from this million-dollar sewer project!”
Sure, any board member with a reasonable conflict of interest should disclose it prior the vote, but please try to remember that, by its very nature, suburban government is a rather incestuous affair. And if you focus on perceived slights instead of the actual issue, they’ll dismiss you just as quickly.
Leave the appearance of impropriety issues to folks like me.
If you do manage to make it past those pitfalls, the next step is to have a basic understanding of how the game is played. And, yes! Even though the folks in local politics tend to be on the up and up, it is, indeed, a game.
Most municipalities and counties operate on Robert’s Rules of Order and, though some meetings can still get out of hand, the process generally works. It won’t do your cause any good if you act like you’re sitting in a sports stadium issuing catcalls, cheers and shouting whenever the mood strikes you.
In other words, act like you’ve been there!
Not everything is nefarious! You have to understand that, by the time your issue comes to the floor, the board members will have already hashed it out, the mayor/chairman has lobbied for an outcome, the folks who will benefit on either side have made their phone calls, and the votes have been pre-counted.
“But Jeff! Doesn’t this mean the whole thing’s rigged and we don't have a chance in heck?”
Absolutely not, Grasshopper! During that recent fight for the iconic building, a member of the preservation group was aghast when she overheard the city manager say the vote was in the bag.
But if I had a nickel for every time I’ve watched an overconfident public official go down in “how the heck did that vote go against me” flames, I’d be a very wealthy man. With school boards being the exception, local politics runs on the currency of self-interest and favors. And the former always trumps the latter.
I'm sure you always want that used item you're selling on eBay to go for the lowest possible price!
And the reason that building still stands is the folks who were opposed to its destruction played the game better than the folks who generally play the game. You’ll find your biggest advantage is that most municipal bodies are fraught with overconfidence, and when you actually come to a meeting prepared, you can really catch ‘em off guard.
When that citizen group sought me out, they wanted to go gotcha. But instead of appearing unreasonable, I advised them to put the non-issues aside, do their homework, present the numbers and facts that supported their position, and the process would likely be a marathon and not a sprint.
I think the reason some of you prefer the gotcha game is a combination of impatience and feeling powerless, but the truth is, there are always options that go beyond the school/village/county board.
Remember the story about the Stone Park nuns who were unhappy with the strip club coming in across the street? My e-mail suggestion was to station a few of their novices right outside the establishment entrance so they could preach to the poor misguided performers and the men who patronize them.
That couldn’t possibly be good for business! They did thank me for my thoughts.
So, yes! If you know how to do it, you can fight City Hall. All it takes is a little patience, persistence, panache and perspicuity.
Now, Grasshopper, go forth and change the world!