Turning Wet Paint Into Post Malone

Posted on March 18, 2020

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Today’s #MorningBuzz is brought to you by Matt Horn.  He knows all the latest tunes…

What I’m Reading:  The Power of Habit, by Charles DuHigg (trying to kick my Girl Scout cookie obsession)
What I’m Listening to:  I’ve got a sweet YouTube running playlist.  Fans of 90’s pop will not be disappointed.
What I’m Watching:  Arrested Development, Season 1 (studying law with Barry Zuckercorn…”I’m not ‘super-prepared…’”)

My most recent line of work takes me into lots of City, Town, and Village board meetings.  Ok, maybe not as many as Michael Karlik, but I see my fair share of “Resolution Establishing a Task Force to Evaluate the Equalization Rate to Be Set for Fiscal Year 2021.”

Almost universally, the governments I work with find themselves in some sort of hot soup relative to one issue or another.  Typically, it’s a resident or stakeholder group who has come across an issue in the newspaper (do they still print those?) or another source; or got a surprise piece of mail delivering not so great news from the municipality.  The call-to-action goes out on social media, and a throng of pitch-fork-bearing community members lines up at the podium to give the Council what for.

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This week, I happened to be in a Board meeting, and watched a municipality totally avert crisis, with some simple meeting management and over the top customer service from a key staffer.  The issue at hand was a recent property value re-assessment, which sent some people’s taxable values as high as their blood pressure.  The Board had done a lot of pre-work—getting information out in the media, providing information at previous board meetings, and making the staff available for questions.

But still, tonight the torches were lit, the pitchforks were sharpened, and the rail was ready for strappin’ vulnerable politicians to…what happened?

I’ll tell you what happened.  In a vacuum, the property assessment process is about as exciting as a calculus teachers’ convention.  It’s a complex formula, and a challenge that seems more like 7th period art than 3rd period algebra.  Little things sometimes move the needle, big things sometimes do nothing.  Comps, fair market value, equalization rates, uuuugggghhh…I’m the world’s biggest local government nerd, and I’m already bored to tears.

People simply don’t care until it happens to them.  Their mailbox.  Their escrow account. Their wallet.  Ready the pitchfork.

So, how do we avoid it?  How do we get people interested up front, so our elected leaders and staff can avoid the sting of hot tar and prickly feathers?

Ask yourself:  “Am I an 18th century blacksmith?” If the answer is no, then write plainly…

Here are a few things I’ve seen work really well:

  • Avoid Legalese:  This stuff is so boring that even our state legislators don’t want to change the language in 60-year-old statutes.  That’s why every public announcement reads something like “Ye Olde Assessor will Entertain Thine Insightful Inquisitions Whence the Bell Tolls Thrice Fortnight Hence.”  Unfortunately, the law says we have to publish it that way in three-point font at the end of the Pennysaver.  Make that the lowest bar for communication.  On agendas, social media, the bulletin board next to the Village Stocks, anywhere residents are likely to look, err on the side of common-sense language.
  • Make Time for Conversation:  The three minutes at the podium ain’t going to cut it.  I was startled at this particular meeting, when the Chief Elected Official invited the public to ask questions about the process, and encouraged staff to answer.  He literally took every question.  The Assessor answered when she could, and invited people to her office when she couldn’t answer immediately.  In the face of a 45% assessment increase, residents rarely leave excited (in a good way), but almost always give you credit for listening to their concerns.
  • Meet them Where they Are/When they Are:  Believe it or not, Wednesday night at 7p at City Hall draws a pretty monochromatic crowd.  In this specific case study, the Town made every effort to make it clear that they would meet with residents anywhere, any time.  They made information available digitally and in office space all day, all week.  I left the meeting with the clear impression that if I invited the Assessor to my 3-year old’s birthday party, she would have brought the preliminary roll with her, and we’d have discussed it over cake pops and juice boxes.  Don’t ever let it be said that you weren’t available.
  • Empathize:  First listen.  Then listen some more.  Then, when it gets really quiet, let them know you understand.  Show them how the same issue has had impact on their neighbors (and you!).  Share personal stories about how you’ve been hammered by the archaic inflexibility of the system.  Never shift blame…in fact, don’t even discuss blame.  Just listen…hear…understand…share your concern.

That’s it…it’s not rocket science, and you probably already thought of it.  I was just really impressed by this particular series of great moves.

Now, get to work translating those public notices into jazzy commercial jingles!

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