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Local Politics

Wednesday, July 29, 2009
How To Make City Hall Work For You
By Phillip M. Perry

Picture this: You operate a thriving dry cleaning shop on a busy access route to an industrial park. Every morning and evening commuters drop off and pick up their clothes.

Business is going great. Then suddenly, disaster. Your town makes your street one-way, and your establishment becomes significantly less convenient to your customers. Result? Your revenues fall off a cliff.

Similar calamities happen everywhere. They all illustrate a key point: The health of your micro-business depends to a great extent on business-friendly decision-making from your town and county governments.

Now let’s rewind the dry cleaning story. What if you had heard about your town’s street modification plans months earlier? And what if you had contacted your local politicians to explain the impact the change would have on your business? Perhaps that one-way street would have never come to pass.

Lesson learned. It’s important to promote business-friendly regulations and legislation by communicating with your city politicians.

“Local officials often have more of an impact on small business than state and federal governments,” says Al Arnold, director of the Academy of Local Politics in Rice Lake, Wis.

Arnold should know. He was mayor of Rice Lake from 1984 to 1988 and again from 1998 to 2000. During those years he worked with scores of entrepreneurs to ensure that changes in local regulations did not unnecessarily harm small businesses.


All Politics Are Local

The decisions you influence in your hometown are likely to impact your business in areas of more immediate importance than federal legislation. Here are some examples:

  • Zoning regulations. Are these about to change in ways that can close you down? How about regulations on home businesses? How about that adult district the town is considering establishing near your store?
  • Street patterns. What are the plans for one-way streets, modified intersections, access roads to bridges, pedestrian malls or traffic circles? Or how about those new center lane concrete dividers that will keep drivers from turning left into your parking lot?
  • Business license fees. Are they about to increase? Are new ones looming?
  • Street maintenance. Will budgetary cutbacks result in unplowed snow and unfilled potholes in the streets customers use to access your business?
  • Police and fire response times. Is the town about to reduce funding, resulting in lengthened response times to fires and robberies at businesses such as yours?
  • Public facilities. Is a decision being made about the location for a new public parking garage that might bring scores of new customers to lucky nearby businesses?
You get the picture. Now how can you influence decisions such as these?

All Politics Are Personal


Networking is a powerful tool for influencing local laws.

“It’s important to be connected and know people when things are in the works, so your business has a seat at the planning table,” says Washington state Sen. Don Benton, who is also founder and CEO of The Benton Group, a marketing agency in Vancouver.

Consider forming relationships with your town mayor, manager, city council or city board members. Don’t overlook your county officials who can influence zoning and the locations of landfills and public parks. These personal relationships will result in advance notices on important town matters.

“If you have your local official’s ear you can get a lot done,” says Ron Fuller, a professional lobbyist in Little Rock, Ark. “Chances are if they become a friend of yours, they will have you and your business in their mind when something comes up.”

So how do you meet these people? Attend town meetings and introduce yourself. Invite the individuals to visit your business or meet them for a cup of coffee and a chat.

You can also invite a city official to lunch. One warning, though: Buying a politician anything more than a coffee might look like undue influence.

“A lunch invitation could be construed by some to be a bribe,” warns former mayor Arnold. “If you do set up a luncheon date, make it clear in advance that it will be Dutch treat.”

Here’s another way to raise your profile: Donate. Politicians will remember your name when you call
to voice an opinion on an issue.

“In smaller cities a board race budget can be as little as $25,000 or even less. So a $100 contribution can
make a difference,” says lobbyist Fuller.

Even better is to host a fundraising event, suggests Nancy Bocskor, a political consultant in Arlington, Va.

“Help a politician raise money by having a coffee in your home. Offer to invite your friends, neighbors and colleagues over to listen to the candidate.”

Stay Informed And Communicate

In some communities the meetings of local city boards are broadcast on the radio, and city board members are interviewed about local issues. Most municipalities are in the electronic age and post their agendas on the Internet.

“Here in Little Rock we have a public access TV station that lists the meetings and topics that are coming up before the city board,” says Fuller. “The station also broadcasts the city board live.”

When you spot a hot issue, offer your input as early as possible. Will a proposed law or regulation have unanticipated consequences? Call and let your politicians know.

“Issues are like rolling snowballs,” says former mayor Arnold. “They get bigger and bigger with time. It’s easier to destroy a hand-size snowball than the base of Frosty the Snowman.”

Don’t undercut your efforts by rubbing politicians the wrong way.

“When communicating, keep three words in mind: courteous, timely and knowledgeable,” says Arnold. “If you are not courteous, they will not take you seriously.

“It does no good to complain after a decision has been reached,” continues Arnold. “The earlier in the process opinions and information are given the more effective they will be. I don’t know how many times in my career as mayor, after a decision was made I would be approached by an irate person who said ‘did you consider that?’ I only answered ‘Nope. Why didn’t you tell me before?’

“The most common error is assuming the governing body has all the relevant information it needs to make an intelligent decision,” says Arnold. “Never assume elected officials have information you may have on an issue.”

One more thing: Don’t hold a grudge if an issue doesn’t swing your way. Bad feelings can cloud your judgment and affect your credibility down the road.

“Politics is a game,” says Arnold. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Win with humility, lose with
grace, and plan on winning the next one.”

______________________________________________________________________
New York City writer Phillip M. Perry finds his own town’s politics a source of endless insight.

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