(Editor’s Note: NIMBY Wars — The Politics of Land Use was just published. In this excerpt, we conclude our look at the main alternatives to help developers win a controversial project, focusing on the local political fixer, whose influence is much diminished in modern land use politics.)
By P. Michael Saint, Robert J. Flavell and Patrick F. Fox
Local PR is rife with political fixers because many retired and ousted politicians do public relations as a follow-up career. They enjoy basking in the admiration of younger pols who call on them for help, advice, and contacts. If the ex-pol is also a lawyer, he strives to be the go-to guy on sticky political matters, including controversial land use proposals.
For the developer, the fixer’s story is attractive (three-term former mayor, pillar of the church, leading light of some fraternal order, widely respected, or something similar), and the temptation to engage his services on behalf of the project may seem overwhelming. He is, by definition, politically connected, and doubtless knows where many political bodies are buried. He can arrange lunch with the mayor or city council president, motivate the chamber of commerce, get the city Democratic or Republican club on the right heading, convince other leading citizens to listen, whisper in the right ears, promote the project behind closed doors, and help work out a political strategy that leaves everyone with heads held high. He knows how and when to trade political chits, and with whom. He has experience,
institutional knowledge, and political gravitas.
The local fixer can influence public officials and introduce to them the advantages that the project will bring and the tactics by which the current administration, or key members of it, can take credit for bringing its benefits to the community in the form of jobs, taxes, much-needed housing, expanded shopping opportunities, redevelopment of eyesores, and so forth. He can also help orchestrate the public perception (conveyed through friendly coverage in the local news media) that current public officials fought hard to wring concessions from the developer, who reluctantly agreed to them under great political pressure in order to get the project approved.
The inherent problem with the fixer’s approach is that it thrives in darkness at a time of openness and sunlight in government.
The old machine boss could shut the door, light a cigar, and tell the mayor what he wanted done. These days, smoking is banned at city hall, and there just might be an FBI microphone in the mayor’s potted plant. And even if politicians operate at the highest moral plane, their idea of what land use best serves the community is likely to conflict with the opinions of property owners and residents who, these days, will not be quiet about it. Granted that the city needs a new sewage treatment plant, neighbors of the site are not going to want it nearby or upwind of their homes or businesses, and they will organize to resist any such siting.
The fixer may want the plant sited on the developer’s locus. Or he may represent unions whose members would work in building the plant or get jobs operating the facility. He may represent propertied interests whose own land values would rise if the new plant were built, if the municipal sewer system replaced their old septic systems, or if the sewer line were extended to run past their undeveloped tracts. Often, there are dueling fixers plotting one against the other
in a contest of political one-upmanship to achieve their respective clients’ goals.
But modern political realities have greatly diminished the fixer’s power and influence because citizens — assertive, empowered, welleducated, well-heeled, politically sophisticated citizens — will not tolerate intrusions on their lives, and public officials can no longer ignore them or act in defiance of their concerns. Worse, the modern citizen deeply resents the political fixer, his top-down approach, and his sneaky tactics. Citizens want transparency and responsiveness to their needs and wishes. The fixer deals in the shadows and cares nothing for citizen issues beyond his own agenda.
The expanding influence of professional planners in land use decision making also limits the fixer’s ability to deliver because the planner will point to the city’s vision statement, master plan, and data cache to pronounce a site unsuitable. The developer who locks up a location before making sure it will get planner approval has not done his homework. The fixer will not be able to take the professional planner into the back room for a quiet chat and change her mind because the planner is morally certain that she is correct. A fixer’s effort to supersede planner influence when both the planner and the citizenry are opposed is doomed.
There are additional solid reasons why the old-fashioned political fixer approach is obsolete in 21st century land use battles. The local political fixer, by her nature, has local ties, strings, and agendas, as well as other projects to promote. In most cases, the client will have no idea, or only a vague idea, of what those other obligations may entail, and no means by which to judge whether they are inconsistent with the client’s own goal. Whether the fixer has conflicting projects on her plate or not, it cannot be denied that she does have a political agenda of her own. Whether that agenda involves staging her own political comeback, becoming kingmaker for the next mayor, or forming a consortium to buy up all the industrially zoned land and rezone it as commercial, personal goals are always in the fixer’s mind. Her every move on behalf of the client will be tinted (and may be hobbled) by the effect that move might have on her own plans.
Furthermore, fixers, no matter how popular and respected, are politicians, usually former public officials, who carry political baggage. Such people are repeatedly required to pick one side over the other and do not go through life without acquiring enemies. City officials are particularly prone to losing support in public service agencies — police, fire, and public works departments, for example — because they are required to be firm in labor negotiations. This is not to say that off-duty firefighters will turn out to oppose the developer’s project. But it does mean that residents who also happen to be off-duty firefighters or sewer department foremen will not be swayed to favor the project because of loyalty to the ex-mayor and might look for ways to sink it just to teach their old adversary a lesson.
Fixers also have devoted political enemies, including those they ran against in the past, those they should have supported but didn’t, and those they double-crossed, smeared, or refused to help in a pinch. The level of enmity a fixer inspires will vary with the situation.
Prospective clients who do their homework should find out not only who respects the fixer, but also who despises him. This includes the fixer’s personal enemies, who may be harder to detect but whose animosity is no less real.
A further, and perhaps the most serious, concern is that the fixer cannot afford to offend the sources of his influence. Since the fixer’s essential sphere of influence extends to the current city administration, he will be able to approach them and quietly discuss his client’s proposal, but he cannot get tough with them, embarrass them, or issue an ultimatum. He needs to maintain their goodwill. After the project wins or loses and the client moves on to another community, the fixer will still need to work with the local officials. He still has other projects and clients to promote and an agenda to pursue. He therefore cannot, and will not, burn any bridges in getting the client’s project approved. Thus, his options in dealing with officialdom are limited, and his skein of tactics is compromised, even before he starts.
(For biographical details on P. Michael Saint, Robert J. Flavell and Patrick F. Fox, click here)