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Inside Moves

June 16, 2003 | By Mac McClelland
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Heidi Johnson

From the Field

My 20 years as a public servant — including 11 as deputy county administrator for Grand Traverse County — taught me how government works. Now that I’ve switched from working “inside” local government to influencing it from the “outside” as an Institute policy specialist, I’d like to offer some advice on how to best influence government to work for you and for Smart Growth.

First, work in the trenches. Most decisions are made by the citizen boards and commissions dedicated to particular issues: Planning boards, parks commissions, and the like. The official bodies that appoint them usually approve their recommendations. So, volunteer for such groups, stay active…and be patient.

Temper your activism with solutions. Just saying no to a proposal isn’t enough; you must also present innovative alternatives. Quite often there are cheaper approaches that are perhaps a bit more difficult to implement: “Smart” traffic signals and road improvements instead of superhighways, town center zoning instead of big box capitulation, brownfield redevelopment instead of greenfield destruction. We must make sure officials are constantly innovating.

Show up! My experience is that having five people at a meeting changes a discussion’s tone. Fifteen people can overturn a bad decision. Thirty-five can reverse a direction. Get involved, bring friends, gain power.

Meet the top administrators. Find the people that affect your cause and discover what makes them tick. Administrators, department heads, and supervisors do research, develop budgets, help set priorities, and carry out policies. If their beliefs don’t match yours, the path to progress will be rough. So know where they are coming from and figure out approaches that can work.

Finally, watch for “hired guns.” The influence of consultants on government is growing. So, keep close track of your local officials’ plans and processes for hiring consultants.

Government can do good things or awful things. I remain convinced that when citizens stay involved, the good things get even better.

Mac McClelland became the Michigan Land Use Institute’s neighborhood schools policy specialist in December 2002. You can reach him at mac@mlui.org.

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