(Editor’s Note: This latest installment from NIMBY Wars: The Politics of Land Use, explores the various reasons why timing is so essential to the strategy and tactics of a land use campaign manager)
By P. Michael Saint, Robert J. Flavell and Patrick F. Fox
Timing is vital in an offense campaign, not only to meet the client’s desired schedule, but also because local political feathers can easily get ruffled at this early stage. Political preparation, organization, and initial forays into the community are important at this juncture, and so is discretion. Political sensibilities come into play early, and so do ingrained animosities among politicians and civic leaders.
It’s important that the client’s project not become a pawn in some political game of get-even, and certainly it must not become an issue in a pending political election campaign. Saint managers usually advise clients who plan to file their projects during the local political campaign season to wait until after the election. If they do not, they risk becoming an issue — perhaps the key issue — in the election and suffering relentless criticism and second-guessing during the campaign and after the election, whether or not a project supporter wins.
It’s important at the outset of an offense campaign to respect political authority and to inform people about the project in the correct order: public officials, followed by neighbors of the project, followed by the news media. Public officials are told first because they expect deference and hold political power. They will be insulted if they first learn about the project on the street or, worse yet, read about it in the newspaper. Giving them prompt notice also works in the developer’s favor because they will often offer insights and useful comments, and may even provide help if they believe the project is a good one for their community.
The principle of timing correctly is important because disclosure too early gives the opposition time and incentive to organize, while disclosure too late annoys opinion makers and abutters, who may carry grudges throughout the process because they were not respected.
What is the proper time to disclose the project to politicians and neighbors? As with all else in politics, it depends. Once the project application is filed, the project is a matter of public record, and city hall gossips will be busily feeding the grapevine. Disclosure to key political figures before the filing may have a salutary effect because it makes the politicians feel that they have inside information. Their ability to maintain confidentiality is put to the test here, but that may be a necessary risk, and can be minimized by very carefully selecting the politicians to be entrusted with information.
The issue of when to disclose also demonstrates the value of the in-depth scope study, which has already identified likely project opponents among local politicians and civic leaders. The campaign manager will want to make sure he has his preliminary work done and his support network organized before giving opponents a chance to attack the project. More important, he will want to make sure he has informed the news media before opponents learn of the project, because they will try to define the project and characterize it as bad for the community at the earliest opportunity. Most news organizations will afford the project proponent one clear, uncritical opportunity to present the project and outline its benefits and features before opening the floodgates for criticism.
Divulging project information can be a dicey business, since politicians are notoriously unable to keep secrets, and neighbors have no reason to do so. Disclosure must be planned carefully, perhaps with an explanation to the public officials that the project and the promised benefits will evaporate if word leaks out prematurely, and the project will go elsewhere.
It usually also makes sense in proposing a controversial project to let the mayor appear to wring concessions from the developer, thereby creating political cover for officials to grant project approval. This involves a preexisting sotto voce agreement on what the developer will provide, followed by a public demand in the newspaper from the mayor that the developer provide it. After an orchestrated closed-door meeting at which the mayor ostensibly lectures the developer on the project’s shortcomings, the developer sheepishly emerges and reluctantly agrees to the mayor’s demands, to the applause of the citizenry and local news media. While everyone is feeling warm and vindicated, the project is quickly approved. Once again, timing is essential: an announcement of the concession too far ahead of the approval vote will give project opponents time to think of other sacrifices to demand; an announcement just before the vote will have a smell of a political fix and sour the mayor’s victory.
The timing issue points once again to the value of the scope study and report. In some campaigns, slow and quiet may be the best way to build support; in others, intense and loud is the best method; in still others, a multipronged approach, using some coalition members to make noise and others to keep their counsel, is most effective.
The strategies and tactics tailored for the client’s campaign will dictate how, when, and to whom disclosure about the project is made, all subject to the goals to be achieved, the deadlines to be met, and the vagaries of the political winds.
Once the project has been announced, deliberate speed in managing supporters and building a critical mass is vital. Delays give opponents time to call for a moratorium or to rewrite the applicable ordinance. The opposition will try to derail the project by forcing withdrawal of the application so that the protection afforded pending projects no longer applies, or by rezoning the parcel or surrounding parcels so that the project proposal is no longer appropriate for the
site. Anticipating opposition efforts to derail the project and devising countermeasures involve political actions as well as legal ones, and are part of the campaign manager’s responsibility. If opponents start a petition drive against the project, the manager may want to launch a counter-drive, or he may want to find community leaders willing to bring the petitioners’ motives or methods into disrepute, thereby reducing the chances that “nice” people will sign. Meanwhile, the developer’s attorney will be involved in responding legally to the opponents’ efforts to force withdrawal or deprive the client of legal protections.
Saint Consulting has had some success with video petitioning, in which a citizen identifies herself on camera and states her reasons for favoring (or opposing) the project. This can have quite an impact on local officials, particularly when a number of video clips are combined to create a citizen testimonial presentation. This approach also avoids the problems that can arise when a citizen signs a petition, then is pressured to deny having done so or to claim the signature is a forgery or to assert that she was duped into signing.
A video clip in which a signatory states her reasons for supporting the development is difficult to deny, and although she can always say she later changed her mind, she can’t claim fraud. Saint field personnel make sure to get a citizen’s support in writing first, just in case she turns out to be camera shy.
It is for this reason that Saint never allows anyone to sign on behalf of someone else, even if that person is a spouse or sibling. It’s much cleaner to make sure each person signs for him- or herself, thereby protecting the firm from entanglement in a family dispute.