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Sunday, December 29, 2013
Next Time American Fork City Wants to Bond

How to pass a prudent bond issue sometime in the future, if we start now.

Having devoted some (virtual) ink here of late to the elephant-size political problem in American Fork's city council chambers, beginning next week, I now turn to some practical but thorny questions about how to function in spite of the elephant.

Today's question is, In view of the recent election results, is there any hope for prudent bonding in the City's near future? (Stay tuned for later discussion of an even more pressing question, What might the City do to approach roads sensibly in the near future, now that the voters have rejected the most prudent approach?)

The City as an institution did a good job explaining the road bond issue proposal to any voters who were willing to become informed. It did as good a job as it could reasonably do within legal limitations -- and without turning the clock back and changing certain things over the past several years, of which more below. However, as the 71-29 percent defeat shows, it wasn't nearly enough to overcome the zealot wave. Most voters didn't work hard enough to see past that wave's very casual relationship with the truth and its deceptive appeals to common prejudices and stereotypes about government and government officials.

Next Time We Want to Issue Bonds . . . Don't

The most prudent thing for the foreseeable future, when the City needs money for roads or other essential things, would be for the city council simply to vote to raise property taxes, even if it takes a 3-2 vote in a body that likes consensus. The 2014-15 council may or many not be willing to do that; it might be political suicide. Yet the much ballyhooed "pay as you go" philosophy, if rationally considered in our present, local context, reveals itself to be a code phrase for tax increases.

Elections are real, important, legitimate concerns; generally speaking, if you can't get elected, you can't govern. If members of the city council want to be reelected, rather than politically destroyed by the same deceptive machine that dominated 2013, even the sensible ones may throw up their hands, declare the obvious -- that the majority of voters wants to gripe about the roads and blame people, but will reject any real solution -- and turn their attention to less inflammatory matters. Democracy, it is said, is the theory that the voters know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.

The Time after That

Someday, however,  City leaders may think it desirable to propose another bond issue to the voters for some purpose or other. Here are some things they'll have to do. All of them might be enough.

  • Figure out who the destroyers are likely to be -- perhaps the same semi-anonymous cowards as this time. Do so well in advance, so the City can appoint some of the zealot opinion leaders to help craft an alternative that actually addresses the problem. Maybe they'll learn. If they produce a good plan, we'll have a good plan. If they produce a bad plan, at least they'll have something of their own to defend, and sensible leaders and candidates can shoot at it while the zealots shoot at the City and incumbents. If they can't come up with a plan, we can highlight that every hour of every day for six months, if necessary. (Memo to City leaders: If you can't co-opt the zealots in this manner, please just vote to raise property taxes and save us all the trouble, and start your reelection campaign now.)
  • Much as I disdain the tendency to filter all communication from departments to the city council through a single administrator, a similar approach might help in this context: Pick a small team of experts (in both subject matter and communications) and make them the public information team. Have all other City staff refer all questions to them -- and because they won't do this universally, make sure the rest of the staff knows the talking points well.
  • The City itself cannot cross the line from informing to promoting a bond issue, but individual members of the city council can. Those who favor the bond, once they've mastered the message, need to spend months on front porches and in living rooms, listening and answering questions and concerns. (Note: This is far too much to expect of city councilors, but it might be necessary to pass a bond issue.)
  • Use the City web site so well that people not only stay long enough actually to learn what's going on, but are also enthusiastic about sending their friends a link.
  • Don't expect the destroyers to stick to the rules or the facts. In fact, expect them not to. Don't get angry when this happens; just stay steadily on the offensive.

As to the last item above,  I have reports from poll workers and others of road bond opponents illegally passing out partisan fliers and trying to persuade others who were waiting in line to vote. There are also well-documented cases of the bond opposition placing signs illegally (without property owner permission) and vandalizing others' signs. Every candidate's supporters include a few people who don't care enough about the rules to learn and obey them, or who think being right in principle makes breaking actual rules okay. But I wonder if a zealous, fact-resistant campaign like the bond opposition this year doesn't encourage that attitude somehow.

Growing Pains (Because That Won't Be Enough)

All of this put together may not be enough, if the zealots are energized. Opposing them, co-opting them as much as possible, and controlling the City's message better may not have turned a 71-29 percent defeat into a 51-49 percent victory in November. There's one other thing that would have been necessary, and by 2013 it was too late to start it for the purpose of affecting 2013 election results.

It's one of the growing pains of a small city emerging from a small town, so I'm not blaming anyone. But the sooner the City gets serious and professional about public communications, the better our city government will be. Here are three ways in which such an effort, sustained over the past several years, could have led us and our roads to a happier place.

First, those of us who have been paying attention to such things for the last several years have seen City officials and staff work tirelessly -- and sometimes creatively -- to cut costs without doing unnecessary damage to people or programs. As recently as this year, some paid positions were cut. I tend to be critical of governments generally, but I have found little to criticize in American Fork City's efforts to economize over the past several years, during our sustained national economic downturn. Having watched this immunized me against the absurd zealot claims that the City has been wasting money by the carload and that there is a vast, fertile field of easy and obvious spending cuts to be harvested by anyone with an ounce of will to do so.

Most voters never saw most of this. Had the City been attentive to the need for professional public communication, most voters would have known what was going on to some degree, with or without the City leaning a local newspaper as a crutch.

By the way, one of the problems with cutting quality-of-life programs like arts and recreation in lean years is that, when more funds are available, you can't just wave the money around and have a good program. Solid programs take years and decades to build, so you try to preserve them at some level of funding even when money is tight.

Second, the zealot wave blamed current and recent leaders for everything from crumbling roads to high water rates, and it grievously misrepresented any number of facts. Most voters were willing to believe them, not realizing that the roots of the problem were in the 1990s. To some degree, conscientious, professional public communications from the City could have immunized many voters and residents against this misinformation.

Third, one of the zealot wave's central arguments was that the City had no plan for ongoing road maintenance and reconstruction, and that it wasn't giving the public enough information about the bond issue proposal. The charge that there was no plan was simply a lie; a public informed properly over the long term would have known this, as would anyone who attended one of the four road bond information meetings and paid attention. "Enough" in "enough information" is a subjective judgment, I know. For my part, I love lots of information, and I was quite pleased with what the City offered.

But there is a larger problem here, and the large, ugly, anonymous signs that went up before the election, claiming the public needed more information, illustrate this greater concern. There is a tendency among the lazy, the tired, and the overworked to prefer the ease of embracing conspiracy theories (the government is hiding something!) to the greater effort of learning to understand more complex realities. Moreover, in a real absence of information, the mind tends to grasp for and believe anything it can, no matter how absurd or false. Then it tends to blame others for not providing information, not itself for failing to go get it. A culture of responsible, conscientious, professional communication from and about local government, built over a period of years and sustained energetically, can eradicate most of this -- though never all of it, I'm sure. In such a culture, most voters' response to those big signs would have been like mine: to scoff and disbelieve.

In short, City leadership needs to learn well the nature and importance of systematic, professional public communication. We're not on the verge of it now; we're a long way from it. If we can get there, we'll see more efficient and economical local government, more sensible electoral results, and fewer lawsuits. And we might even be able to keep using our streets.

Meanwhile, the voters have put the City in a position where the only rational thing it can do to save our roads is to raise taxes. Alas.

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