A resident who grew up in town recently reached out to learn more about a need referenced in my budget narrative for the upcoming budget season. While I was more than happy to talk with her over the phone as she requested, I suggested she come in for a better perspective.
The budget item was related to digitizing documents and implementing processes to make better use of space and to access information more efficiently. We toured the offices to view the files, while I explained the consequences of not being able to retrieve needed information from our disorganized files. While we are still operating with paper processes, the building is not continuing to grow.
By the end of the tour, she had a clear understanding of the amount of space taken up by paper that could be used for better purposes and how it makes it difficult to find the information that we need, when we need it. Because of this visit, she is now likely the greatest proponent of the vast initiative to fund ongoing document preservation methods like digitization and implementing improved processes.
Your Town Hall
The most impactful part of the conversation was the opportunity outside of a public meeting to talk about bigger-picture ideas and her concerns. Due to her recent attendance at select board meetings, I knew that she shared her opinions frequently, but in a manner indicating she did not understand or relate to the way the town governance operated, though she votes and volunteers at every election.
“This is your town hall,” I told her. “Walk in like you own the place. Because you do.”
This is your town hall, and it is meant to work for you and for every other resident. If it is not operating the way you think it should, ask questions and provide feedback. That is how things change. I then proceeded to remind her of changes the public would have noticed the past few years and told her they happened because of public input.
Our conversation went on for three hours covering a broad spectrum of town-related topics. It was time well spent. We went over a lot of questions that had clearly been burning a hole in her heart as she is clearly someone who cares about her town.
It's Public Until It's Not
For example, some major transitions had happened over the past several months and she told me how she didn’t understand why they happened the way they did. There were a lot of executive sessions closed to the public without public-appropriate updates for the residents. That led to a discussion about what must be and cannot be discussed in public vs. nonpublic sessions. “It’s public until it’s not,” I told her. I encouraged her to consider the business of the town to be public at all times, until the very few circumstances under which it cannot be. This reframes what it means to relate to and engage with your government. Though there is always room for improvement, she no longer seems to begrudge why it happened the way it did.
She told me about her daughter listening to the recent select board meeting online and asking questions of her about what was going on. “Tell her to call the office or to go to a meeting and ask. Empower her to understand and engage with her government, too!”, I told her.
“It’s a chain reaction. Tell all your family and neighbors about how you spoke at a meeting and how you were received. Show others that it can be done, and it can be very effective.”
“People would probably attack me with pitchforks for asking but could we just contract out administration or another function?” she asked. “Of course! Level of service is relative to the price people are willing to pay for it and it would always reflect the values of the residents. While it should be the conscious choice of the people, instead it is just an evolution of what was before.”
“Why doesn’t the board ask people what they want?” she wondered. We discussed how the board could do better and why they don’t (because they all work full-time and are overwhelmed by the growing list of agenda items during budget season). I asked her how she would have the board consider this need and what they should conduct outreach about?
Service Compared to Cost
I explained to her that you will have dysfunction by the nature of the organization structure, number of deficiencies, and what is reasonable to charge the residents in taxes. Board members run for office because of a deficiency they notice, which is, indeed, an area to be improved. Once they are on the board, they see how many things need to be done and they are distracted by complaints and initiatives of residents that allows them to understand why the town is not operating as they think it should. It never can for this price. “How can we do better and overcome this?” she asked. I reminded her that like everything else,
The level of service you would like to receive is relative to the amount we would have to pay to make it happen.
Add to that the loss of control that happens in letting a department head or town manager make the decision, and she agreed that as frustrating as things are now and have been, they are not likely to change here anytime soon.
When she asked about something that was bothering her about town operations, I asked her to reflect on the select board--not the current board members but the concept of a select board. Think about three average people (we have a 3-member board) who have no experience, education, or training to run a town.
Time Well Spent
The three hours went by quickly. Why spend the time? With such constrained resources, there is never enough staff time, and there are pressing things that need to be done. Spending this dedicated time with residents leads to better grassroots civic engagement, the kind that results in the ballot initiatives that support the community actually getting passed by the voters.
Take the time to talk to the residents as though you believe it is the most important part of your job. Whether or not you really think it is, the resulting behavior has the potential to create positive ripple effects throughout the community for years to come.
Call for Content
Share your ideas with fellow ICMA members and local government leaders to advance the profession. We’re searching for interesting and insightful stories that can help others learn a memorable takeaway to serve their communities better.
Best practices, practical tips, innovative approaches, and lessons learned through success or failure are a few of the methods; PM magazine, ICMA Blog, Voices in Local Government Podcast, and videos are a few of the platforms.
Whether it’s interest in a Q/A style like this blog, a completed draft ready to submit, or an early concept, complete the short form or email Joe Supervielle, ICMA content manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you on next steps.