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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.

Be creative!

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!

Tom Mouhelis April 27, 2012 at 12:35 PM
the vast majority of us that serve are public servants not politicians
Maria April 27, 2012 at 01:25 PM
Advice from an activist: 1. Never fight an issue as a "Nimby." 2. Do your research. Facts, Facts, Facts. Facts will win the day over opinions. 3. Know the law, follow the law and USE the law to the fullest extent to excerise all of your rights. The public body must know that you and/or your group have the means and the law on your side to prevail in a lawsuit. 4. Stand your ground and do not succumb to name calling, citizen bashing and other PR tactics designed to control and minimize public participation. Do not be afraid to stand alone. A group is not necessary if you do all of the above. "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead
Jeff Ward April 27, 2012 at 01:54 PM
Tom, Sadly, that's not true. They may not be horsetraders, but they are politicians. They would be completely ineffective if they weren't! JEff
Jeff Ward April 27, 2012 at 01:55 PM
Maria, Thanks for the NIMBY point. I was already getting a bit long-winded. Jeff
Kent Frederick April 27, 2012 at 02:54 PM
I avoid saying, "If you don't vote my way, I'm voting for your opponent in the next election. On the other hand, I will say something such as, "I voted for you in the last election, because I agreed with much of your agenda. However, your position on this issue is disappointing." I like to think that tells an official that he really needs to reconsider his position on an issue, because he's losing people who otherwise have agreed with him on other issues.
Jeff Ward April 27, 2012 at 03:00 PM
Kent, That's another great way of doing it. Good point! Jeff
Jack April 27, 2012 at 04:22 PM
Jeff, you wrote: "With school boards being the exception, local politics runs on the currency of self-interest and favors." Enlighten me, please. In what meaningful way are school boards the exception?
Jeff Ward April 27, 2012 at 08:33 PM
Jack, First, school board members don't get paid, nor do they get benefits so that takes the stakes down many, many notches. Second, there aren't that many favors to hand out. There's no zoning, no code enforcement and the outside contracts are nothing compared to what goes on in even the smallest municipality. Third, the position provides very little influence. Even non-Chicago aldermen can rise to prominence on a par with the mayor, but school board members? Nope! Lastly, because so few people participate in the process, they automatically tend towards the school district and the superintendent anyway. It's the nature of the beast. Jeff
TJ April 27, 2012 at 10:03 PM
"...insure your defeat" should be "ensure your defeat". HTH
Bob McQuillan April 27, 2012 at 11:10 PM
As evident above, most people don't understand the role of a school board member. They do not advocate for students, the teachers and administration do that. They do not set curriculum, the administration does that. They do not represent the teachers as their union does that. They do not represent the administration as they represent themselves. Their sole responsibility is to represent the taxpayers. The oath of office states "I shall respect taxpayer interests by serving as a faithful protector of the school district's assets; I shall encourage and respect the free expression of opinion by my fellow board members and others who seek a hearing before the board, while respecting the privacy of students and employees; I shall recognize that a board member has no legal authority as an individual and that decisions can be made only by a majority vote at a public board meeting; and I shall abide by majority decisions of the board, while retaining the right to seek changes in such decisions through ethical and constructive channels." The roles of the board, administration, teachers and support staff should be very clear. When the board thinks that they are friends and colleagues with the administration and teachers, the taxpayers have no voice. School board members need to remember that they answer to the taxpayers and no one else. The nature of the beast has to change. As to contracts, why did so many vendors of the District contribute thousands to the 2007 referendum passage?
Mouse April 28, 2012 at 01:33 AM
"3. Know the law, follow the law and USE the law to the fullest extent to excerise all of your rights. The public body must know that you and/or your group have the means and the law on your side to prevail in a lawsuit." This is Illinois. The "public body" will just have the law changed to suit their side of the situation and then threaten to counter-sue if you attempt to stop them. It's the Western Springs Way!
Maria April 28, 2012 at 03:00 AM
That's exactly what they did in Lisle!! Change the state law to allow them to shut out citizen participation!!! http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20110827/news/708279893/
Michael O'Conner April 28, 2012 at 03:12 AM
I agree Maria. Fortunately it's far easier today for a citizen activist to obtain the information he needs. There is no substitute for doing the research, getting your facts, knowing the law and, perhaps most importantly, having the courage to stand up and demand justice. The writer of the article is being sarcastic (I hope) when he says that asking questions in a humorous manner will bring about change.
G.Ryan April 28, 2012 at 03:32 AM
And as for the Geneva School Board Members who are the beasts they need to resign as they do not function in an ethical manner and do not answer to us taxpayers! In fact, we were not even allowed to speak at the last meeting regarding an alleged manipulated multiplier??? In essence, they have failed to adhere to the standards of oath protocols established before them. What an injustice....
John R April 28, 2012 at 02:30 PM
Oh boy here we go again..... sigh, John R
J April 28, 2012 at 05:18 PM
Not everything is nefarious, Jeff? I'll only agree not to speak in absolutes, but it's pretty close. Want some examples? The Milton Township whole friggin organization. A perfect example of people looking to solely keep their fiefdom exactly as it is, damn the taxpayers. The Dupage Forest Preserve District. Until Pierotti croaks, nefariousness is it's essance. As far as school districts go, taxpayers come last. In your explanation, the board members represent me, the taxpayer. In reality, when negotiating a teachers' contract, the union reps have one thing in mind, stick it to the taxpayer, and the board members, not being professional negotiators, often come up way short in taxpayer representation. Keep a eye on Glen Ellyn District 41. They are in negotiations currently. The last contract was 4 years and was horrible for the taxpayers. There is a clause in their current contract that is in others as well. It allows teachers that declare the intention to retire in 4 years to get their salary sweetened by 6% annually in order to screw the taxpayers out of more pension money. This is the essance of nefariousness. This kind of garbage will go on as long as Joe average taxpayer doesn't know or care to invest time in learning about how his or her taxes are being wasted.
colony classics August 01, 2012 at 11:58 PM
Ok, what do you do when you have a Mayor that is running amuck with power. The entire administration, most of City Council and all the boards are filled with cronyism, cullusion and arrogance. We have a project in our City that was started with 18 months silence as to have all plans for the move of a drug recovery & a $6.2 million dollar section 8 housing complex for addicted homeless people located a block away from our historical downtown. Long story short, project is a private developer using Federal Tax credits and used drug recovery for bate. Mayor has put his wife on drug recovery board, city police chief and special crimes head quit said board due to disag15reement on this plan. Mayor has lawyered up our BZA and relieved one member from the board saying she did not have his vision and she was too old :( She was the most honest, unbiased one on BZA. Others are controlled by the Mayor. Developer lied on zoning app concerning amount of land and knew for 3 years footprint was for 7,000 sq foot building as he plans if for over 15,000. It is all corrupt. We are headed to BZA again on Aug 7th to watch the Mayors kangaroo court and try to change zoning codes for this developers project. What can taxpayers do...we'ver tried everything. Even overpaid a zoning attorney which got us nowhere......any advice anyone ????? Reply's are welcome....
Jeff Ward August 02, 2012 at 01:31 AM
Dear Colony, It would be helpful to know what city you're talking about, but it's not critical. The Kane County Board was in this position 4+ years ago. There will always be some alderman who understand what's going on and realize that a change is necessary, but they'll be a little hesitant to come forward. Seek them out. Then, work together to find a strong candidate who's willing to take on this mayor. Start a quiet grass roots movement to build support. Don't be flashy! Your best defense is the arrogance of the folks in power. You want this kind of thing to sneak up on them. It's a time consuming effort, but I've seen it work again and again if you're group is dedicated and persistent. Jeff

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