How to Work with City Hall

April 1, 2008
Bottom Line Personal
Herb Tyson
Yes, you can fight city hall — but there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it, says government strategist Herb Tyson. A former director of intergovernmental affairs at the US Department of State, Tyson now is vice president at Dutko Worldwide, a government relations firm based in Washington, DC (www.dutkoworldwide.com). Here are some pointers he gave me…
  • Do your homework…
  • Call to find out whom you should contact. Then look for people you know who have ties or connections to the official involved. Talk with them about how best to approach the individual.
  • Gather data. If people are speeding past the stop sign in front of your home, count how many do so within a given period.
  • Don’t drop the ball. If an official asks for further information or documentation, such as photos of a road hazard, provide it promptly.
  • Don’t just complain. Offer recommendations or possible solutions. Usually, writing is better than calling — it creates a paper trail — but be concise. Both e-mail and regular mail are fine.
  • Stay calm. Anger won’t get a pothole fixed or a tax bill corrected. Such statements as “I’m a taxpayer, and I vote” or “You work for me” only get people’s backs up.
  • Be especially polite to the gatekeepers — the people who control access to the decision makers. Requests from nasty or condescending citizens may get sent to the bottom of the pile — or even the trash can. But these gatekeepers also can make amazing things happen.
  • Don’t do an end run. Start with a lower-level employee unless a problem is severe.
  • Give politicians wiggle room. Don’t insist that a traffic light be installed or an employee be fired… and don’t make some other all-or-nothing demand. Local officials have many regulations to follow, as well as many constituencies to please.
  • Get the backing of other people. Tyson says that it is always better to communicate that a problem is shared by more than just one constituent.
  • Example: Talk with your neighbors before complaining about speeders in your neighborhood. Get them to show up at the hearing or write letters of support.

    Also: If you write a letter, send copies to people or organizations supportive of your position.

    • Follow up. Give a specific date on which you will call if you haven’t heard from the official — and do it.

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