July 29, 2008

Out of Thin Air

Folks ask me periodically whether I miss the news business. My answer is always the same---nope. Until now.

The looks on the Spokane City Council members’ faces would have make great TV last week when Mayor Mary Verner asked them to put a $41 million bond issue on the ballot to pay for several new public buildings. Can you imagine sitting there when Verner walked in, trailed by her staff, and out of the blue suggested to the Council that the City needs a new street department building, an animal shelter, a new police shooting range and evidence storage building? Would have been a hoot to watch were it not so sad that there was absolutely no preparation, groundwork, communication or public outreach prior to Verner dumping the issue into the Council’s lap.

We may actually need the new structures. Who knows? Certainly not the Council or the public at this point. Paving the way for capital projects generally takes time, effort, lots of information and political savvy. But instead of creating a well thought out, robust and persuasive case for new taxes that 60% of the voters might support Verner pulls this initiative out of thin air just a couple of weeks before the deadline to put it on the November ballot. That leaves little time for the Council to evaluate the need for the new buildings or determine if Verner’s numbers are right. And has any research been done to gauge whether voters have an appetite for a large tax increase to pay for things that only benefit city employees?

Persuading community leaders, decision makers and taxpayers to support large bond issues can be done. I was a consultant on last fall’s successful campaign to pass a $42 million bond issue for Spokane’s parks, pools and playgrounds. We worked hard, raised a lot of money and had a compelling argument for the tax increase. But dozens of people spent long hours evaluating the issue and laying the groundwork before asking the Council to put it on the ballot.

That didn’t happen here. I also suspect the Mayor has no plan to organize a campaign to push the issue if it gets on the ballot. But don’t worry---this won’t be the last time this administration forgets that communication is a key component to running a city. Which means I will also have more opportunities to miss being on TV.

July 24, 2008

Spokane County Must Act Quickly

Call it common sense or just good politics but the results are the same: Spokane County now has at least a fighting chance to build a new jail. But only if the Commissioners and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich work quickly to lay the necessary groundwork to gain public support for what will be the largest bond issue in county history.

Commissioners were rushing toward asking voters this November to approve a $245 million bond issue for the project---it was shaping up to be an abysmal failure. No public education campaign was in place, strong opposition to the new jail’s proposed site near Downtown Spokane had surfaced and was working hard to kill the project and creating a political committee to push the measure was only an afterthought.

But the questions now are will the time be used wisely or will the Sheriff and Commissioners revert to form? If experience is any judge they will find themselves in the same position a year from now. Why? The county staffers in charge of designing the project have strongly suggested since last January that a public education program explaining the need for a new jail be established before anything else is done. That wise council fell on deaf ears for more than six months---the only thing that got the decision makers’ attention was the price tag.

The Sheriff and Commissioners must move fast to gain public support because opposition will not wane; opponents smell blood and will continue working to ensure that the project never comes up for a vote. But my guess is that nothing will be done on the communications front until after November. Throw in the holidays and we’re into January before the subject resurfaces---a full year after staffers recognized where their leaders should go.

Communication is the key to this project—always has been, always will be. But there are no signs that anything will happen any time soon.

July 11, 2008

A Positive Public Policy Outlook

Among the many lessons I’ve learned during my 30 years of public affairs experience is that even though a recommendation may not be what you want it’s best to stay engaged on a positive level with policy makers because there will always be another chance.

And here it is: Instead of awarding a short term contract with a local racetrack operator to get Spokane Raceway Park back up and running the Spokane County Commissioners will shift gears and seek a long term operator. Good for my client Pacific Raceways because even though we lost the first heat we’ll get another opportunity.

Why the change in direction? The Commissioners had hoped to salvage some of the summer racing season by working with an interim operator. But too many legal roadblocks and some new information about the where the race track should go has lead the Parks Department and the Commissioners to slow down, re-evaluate and pursue a long term agreement that will ensure the entire 317 acre sports complex will be successful.

I understand the political pressure to reopen what will now be called the Spokane Motorsports Complex as soon as possible. But the Commissioners are making a wise choice---and not just because it may benefit my client. They have one shot to do this right and start creating a first class recreational facility. Taking a little more time to find the right fit can help avoid costly mistakes down the road.

This brings me back to keeping a positive outlook when working in the public affairs arena. Criticizing adverse decisions might feel good but it rarely helps in the long run. Keeping your council and continuing to help decision makers reach their goals reinforces your credibility and reliability---it’s like money in the bank because there will always be another chance.

July 9, 2008

Losing Control of the Debate

Big ideas are great---I love them. But most of the time they won’t go far unless the groundwork is properly laid. Here’s the latest example from Spokane’s City Hall: Water Use Restrictions.

Mayor Mary Verner says that folks ought to conserve water and among the better ways to do that is limit when people can sprinkle their lawns. Sounds reasonable when you consider all of the energy going toward preserving the aquifer and the Spokane River. But Spokane residents love their green lawns so any hint of watering restrictions creates more than just ripples across the pond.

Major policy initiatives such as water restrictions need a great deal of explanation, background information and good old-fashioned schmoozing in order to gain the necessary support among the voters as well as the decision makers---in this case the City Council. Critical audiences need to be identified, facts gathered, key messages developed and a robust PR and media plan created in order to mobilize support for tough issues. Moving forward without clear, concise and persuasive messages and strong reasons for making a change means running the risk of losing control of the debate---which has already happened. City Council members Bob Apple and Nancy McLaughlin have expressed their opposition and letters to the editor panning the idea have already been published. The only thing coming from the Mayor’s office is that the City will be exempt from watering restrictions.

Most people probably would not argue with Mayor Verner’s vision to conserve water; many would even support her idea to limit some water usage which makes this a winnable issue. But it’s going to take more than just good ideas, sincere beliefs and noble intentions to make it happen.