Politics and turmoil in small towns

One of you wrote in with a tough question last week, and out of respect for privacy, I won’t say who. The question was one that can come up in any small town. It’s politics. It’s in-fighting. It’s that crazy “us versus them” game that can consume your town. It’s the thing that throws you off track. 

You’re working on building a better place, thinking, “In 10 years, no one will recognize this town, it will be so great!” Then suddenly there’s a new mayor, or new majority on the town council, and they’re working on a $20 million bond project that will help their own business (and no one else’s), and they’re thinking, “We can fire everyone off the economic development board and put in people who think more like us!” Now what do you do? 

I used to be a city administrator of a town of 1000, and I was fired from that job in 2005, so I have been through some local turmoil myself. And I’ve learned a lot more since then. 

Here’s what I would do today.

Realize that you are not alone.
Your small town is not the only one with problems like this

Learn the rules.
Get copies of the city ordinances, constitutions, or rules (what ever they are called in your area) for the municipality and any other municipal organization that might be involved. Read them. What are the rules for the actions being taken now? What about rules for the actions you guess are planed for the future? What are the rules for appointing people to the various boards and commissions involved? What are the eligibility rules for serving? Who is the attorney for the city? Who has jurisdiction if the rules are not followed? Do you go to the district attorney, a county official, or someone else? Can you build a relationship with them now, and express your concerns for the direction this is headed? Talk to the Municipal League in your state, or find the organization of towns and cities in your area. Ask questions about previous towns to go down similar roads. 

Shine a polite light on this.
Attend meetings. Take notes. Share them online. Share them on paper. Avoid adding commentary, just report the facts. Talk to other people in a calm and nonthreatening manner. Share what you have learned. Invite them to attend meetings with you. 

Keep personalities out of it, at least on your end.
The more you stick to facts and seem rational, the easier it is to do this last one…

Try to connect with them.
I know someone may seem like an enemy, and the immediate instinct is to treat this as a fight you have to win. The secret is that there is no “us versus them.” There is only us, all of us. So reach out. Ask questions. Try over and over and over again to build a bridge on some level. Because if it does turn into an all-out fight, no one wins. And then you still have to live and work together. 

Now, I know you have stories, too. And it’s fun in a mean way to tell stories that make us say, “Isn’t that awful?!” At least it helps us not feel alone. I won’t be sharing those back in this newsletter, because I’d rather share solutions. What positive lessons can you share from your small town politics experiences? What has worked?