NIMBY Wars: organizing and managing citizen group for a project

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(Editor’s Note: An effective citizen’s group can rally like-minded people to pressure elected officials in favor of controversial projects. This excerpt discusses how to get them interested and enthused, how to select a leader and how to get them committed)

By P. Michael Saint, Robert J. Flavell and Patrick F. Fox 

Once the consultant has identified natural friends (or enemies) of the project, his task is to show them that they can act on their concerns effectively if they organize and work cooperatively with one another and enter into alliances and coalitions with other groups whose members share their concerns.

Once again, the land use political consultant’s experience comes into play as he determines how to best make contact with the concerned citizens and groups he has identified, and how to earn their trust so they will feel comfortable talking openly with him and listening to his suggestions. Sometimes, the initial contact may arise from chats with local residents in local gathering places. The consultant needs only one or two local residents to say they love (or hate) the project to begin the recruitment process. Do their neighbors, friends, coworkers, or relatives feel the same way? Is anyone organizing them to make their concerns public and to push public officials to address these concerns? What are the reasons for their opposition, and who else might share these concerns? Sometimes, there is a preexisting activist, neighborhood, taxpayer, or citizen group that the land use consultant can adopt (or that adopts him). If so, the consultant can use its existing leadership structure to treat the land use campaign as a project the group undertakes, provided he can get past the suspicion and cynicism that invariably greets the interloper.

Early in this conversation, the local residents are going to want to know why the consultant cares. Because this question is certain to arise, and because it is vitally important to building a relationship with the local people, the consultant will have thought the matter through and have a ready answer. Usually, on an offense project, he can simply say he works with the owner or developer and would like to build local support to offset anticipated opposition from naysayers and to show municipal officials and the local news media that there is real support for the proposal. On the defense side, things are more delicate because the consultant is obligated to protect the client’s confidentiality, as well as his own, and cannot expect local citizens to keep the secret.

In considering what to tell the local citizens, the consultant realizes that whatever he says will define how he is identified going forward.

It is important that he not be seen as a liar and not have told different stories to different people: hence, the need for caution in making initial contact with employees at city hall. The consultant must be seen as trustworthy, but also as resourceful, competent, and effective. Local residents are willing to follow his lead and are more than happy to have someone else do the work and pay the bills, but only if they have confidence that he can and will do the job and will not embarrass them or get them sued.

Quite often in the defense case, the cynical and worldly members of the local citizen opposition have already begun organizing and are thrilled at the prospect of getting help, administrative as well as financial. In such cases, the land use consultant can often simply state the truth: that he works with some local business interests who need to remain anonymous for political and business reasons, but who are willing to assist the citizen group financially and provide it with legal counsel, if necessary, to oppose the project that all agree would be bad for the community.  What the consultant is saying is true. While citizens might assume they know the identity of the business interests involved, the consultant has preserved the client’s confidentiality.

Sometimes, however, the consultant needs to be somewhat less forthcoming to protect the client and the citizens: citizens who know the identity of the client must disclose that information when questioned under oath, thereby potentially opening themselves and their neighbors to liability as codefendants in whatever plot the plaintiff alleges.

Citizens who don’t know can truthfully say under oath that they don’t know. In such cases, the consultant will put discretion first, explaining that various interests — environmental, ecological, commercial, preservationist — assist local citizens in their opposition to undesirable projects, and he represents one or more of such groups, who must remain anonymous. With such a reasonable (if vague) explanation, the citizens are usually ready to listen to what might be done to effectively stop the development.

Having talked with some citizens and collected some names, the consultant is ready to arrange an informal meeting, perhaps in someone’s living room, where similarly minded people can discuss the project privately. Such chats should not take place in a public setting, such as a restaurant, where the risks of being overheard are much too great, especially in a small town. Besides, people are more comfortable and more likely to speak their minds openly in a private residential setting. It’s also far easier to outline what might be done and whip up enthusiasm if the group members feel secure and comfortable and are not on public display.

Usually, supporters are people who want the money or jobs the project will bring, rather than the project itself. For some of these people, the project is a necessary evil to be endured in order to get the jobs and tax revenues; for others, the project is a benefit to the community, but it is still the money that counts. The problem with project supporters in general is that they lack the  enthusiasm, determination, and zest that drive project opponents and are therefore difficult to keep committed. The difference is that opponents really do oppose the project, have a visceral dislike for it, view it as a threat to their quality of life, and do not care about whatever promises the developer makes regarding jobs and tax revenues. Without close supervision, opponents will sometimes take matters into their own hands, engaging in activities, such as vandalism, that are counterproductive, especially when the news media identify the culprit as a leader of the opposition group. Supporters, then, need constant attention to keep them busy, while opponents need constant attention to keep them from getting too busy. For this reason, citizen group handling differs markedly, depending on whether the assignment involves an offense or defense campaign. The differences between offense and defense campaigns will be discussed in Chapter 7.

The land use political consultant has three goals for the first inhome meeting with citizens: (1) get them interested and enthused about the chances of effectively influencing the political process; (2) select a leader or at least identify someone with leadership abilities; and (3) begin getting firm commitments from members of the group to make sure they remain occupied and don’t drift away. It’s also wise to remember that people who belong to other groups, or those in a preexisting citizen group, may have conflicted loyalties, even though they join the land use battle with good intentions. The land use political consultant will make sure to know about these potential conflicts and avoid putting such members in an uncomfortable position.

Goal 1: Get Them Interested and Enthused

The formative stages of the citizen group are the most important in setting the tone, especially if the land use consultant is organizing the group from scratch. An ad hoc group can be the most effective kind because it carries no past baggage, isn’t stuck with world-weary existing leadership, can focus on the problem rather than adding it to an existing list of issues, and has the enthusiasm of newness. Still, it lacks the automatic influence that well-established local groups often enjoy, lacks institutional memory, and amounts to a “dead lift” for the land use political manager, who must create all of the elements of group governance and dynamics from scratch.

Whether the group is new or preexisting, the land use political consultant’s immediate task is to convince the members that they can effectively influence the progress and outcome of the land use battle.

Usually, an outline of potential activities that the group might undertake — a petition drive, a rally, a letter-writing campaign, bumper stickers, a fundraising event — begins to get members’ juices flowing as the manager explains how citizen activism affects the attitude of elected public officials and the news media, and how activism builds on itself as more and more citizens realize that they share the group’s goals and want to take part. A few war stories demonstrating the effectiveness of citizen groups (and the competence of the manager) are usually enough to pave the way for discussion of the project approval timeline, likely stumbling blocks along the way, the attitude of the permit-granting board toward such a project, and immediate steps the group can take to get started.

Goal 2: Select a Leader

At this point, the manager should have a good idea which group members seem to have the leadership ability and talent to chair the organization. The manager knows she can expect to do the lion’s share of the work herself. What the group really needs is someone who can serve as the face of the group, someone who is articulate, knowledgeable, and, if possible, mildly photogenic and is not likely to embark on a control-freak ego trip that will drive members to quit and discourage new ones from joining.

The land use consultant needs to be especially careful at this point, selecting the leader but not being seen as imposing the leadership on the group. She needs to avoid a nomination-and-election process, which leaves hard feelings and often produces an egotist who didn’t really want the job beyond saying that he holds it, and who won’t do the work or be dependable. The land use manager, as emcee of the meeting, leader of the discussion, and facilitator of the process, has considerable sway with the group, particularly after just introducing it to the world of political activism and citizen influence.

She is, essentially, the leader at this point, and can therefore ask her choice to “coordinate” some activity or “be in charge” of something without actually pronouncing the individual leader. The advantage of this approach is that such a leader is easily replaced if he turns out to be a dud.

Goal 3: Get Them Committed

Maintaining a citizen group is far more difficult than organizing one. Citizens high on the prospect of having some control over their destiny are enthusiastic at first; but in the obligations and routine of everyday life, citizens find their drive wilting and have difficulty finding time to devote to another project, a problem exacerbated if they are also bored because nothing is happening. This is standard for any new volunteer organization — there are doers, there are talkers, and there are no-shows. The no-show contingent grows as job and family responsibilities supersede the needs of the group and people peel off to live their lives. The problem is especially troublesome in managing a citizen group working on a land use battle because the lags between actionable events can be long and unpredictable. Approvals on a major project can take many months, as any developer of such a project well knows: hearings may be weeks apart; environmental impact documents take months to prepare and review; bureaucratic processing can be tedious. Worse is the series of false alarms that inevitably plague a major land use battle: the planning board schedules a hearing; the citizens go on alert, galvanize their forces, prepare for battle, polish their arguments, clear their schedules; and then the hearing is postponed, usually on the day it was scheduled to take place. Too many false alarms result in battle fatigue, making it difficult for the manager to get the troops enthused again when the skirmish is rescheduled.

(Crafty land use managers on the offense side deliberately use hearing postponements to wear down the opposition and thereby demoralize their enthusiasm, increase attrition in their ranks, and reduce their turnout.)

Political junkies enjoy electoral politics because of the urgency, the constant crisis atmosphere, the sense that there is much to do and too little time, the continual need for decision making and problem solving, with no time for rumination. It’s not possible to maintain a constant crisis atmosphere in a land use fight because of the delays. In addition, there is a playbill of multiple actors, the dramatis personae, each with a role, an agenda, a process, and a pace of getting things done: the developer, the developer’s lawyer, the planning board, the city planning staff, the zoning board. There may also be the building commissioner, the city council, the city legal department, the county or regional planning agency, the state environmental agency, and sometimes federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency or the Army Corps of Engineers, as well as assorted public officials at all levels who will intervene and posture if they see an opportunity to advance their agenda or enhance their reelectability.

Maintaining a state of continuous agitation, crisis, and chaos is not possible. But since the strength and influence of the citizen organization depends on its perceived membership and activism, the manager must keep the group together and engage a stop-loss program to curb attrition. The manager maintains a continuous flow of activities and projects aimed at keeping as many members as possible aboard and sustaining the perception that the organization is both activist and formidable. The means of doing so include meetings (but not too many), e-mails, a Web site, a blog, and a phone tree, among other things. Most important are the duties and activities that the manager and group leader ask members to perform, since most people try to do what they have promised to do (especially when  goaded). In other words, keeping members busy is the way to keep them committed.

This requires the manager to maintain and augment a revolving list of things that need to be done, so that once a member completes one mission, the manager is ready with another task to assign — even if he knows that he will wind up doing it over because the citizen will not do an especially thorough job. Most citizen groups, like most social organizations, have a very small core of actual workers and a good many hangers-on, and the land use manager will do most of the work. The citizens in the group (especially the leader) will perceive themselves as doing a good deal more and working a good deal harder than they actually are doing and working, and they will take credit for anything the manager does. It’s all part of politics, and the professional land use manager knows that his job is to do whatever is necessary to move ever closer to achieving the client’s goal.

The citizens must not see the tasks assigned them as make-work, so the manager must take pains to explain the importance of the task and the vital need for the information or activity the citizen will undertake. In some cases, assigning duties is easy: someone has to be in constant charge of maintaining and updating the website; someone needs to organize and coordinate the fundraising barbecue and will need help from a drinks organizer and a potato salad coordinator; some one needs to arrange a list of vehicles and drivers to bring senior citizens to the hearing and set up a schedule for pickups and dropoffs; someone needs to get bids for the T-shirt silk screening and then coordinate with the printer; someone needs to check the planning board twice a week for new or amended filings; someone needs to draw maps; others need to do research and gather information; someone needs to coordinate letters to the editor, making sure they get written and mailed; someone needs to run the blog and insert comments in existing community blogs; someone needs to write, edit, and publish the group’s newsletter; and so forth. Sometimes, of course, it’s difficult to think of things for people to do when there is a hiatus in battle activity; a resourceful political campaign manager will find a way to do so because the alternative is to lose the edge as the roup falls from formidable to paper-tiger status.

Nimby Wars was released on October 28th, and is available at the following fine booksellers


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