No matter how long you have served in some capacity for local government, at some point, you will undoubtedly make some residents unhappy. The old saying, “you can’t make everyone happy,” certainly applies to this line of work. As a manager, your ability to handle complaints is an essential part of your overall skill base. An elder Councilman once pulled me aside and said, "I know if you are doing a good job when the monthly meeting room is empty." I have to agree. Rarely does anyone come to local government meetings anymore just because they care. They only show up when they have a concern. As an accessible manager, I took pride in solving 99% of the disquiets from within my office versus the complainant approaching the Council at a public meeting. This tactic worked well for me, as inevitably word would circle around and the end result was, "the manager handled the situation." In my opinion, this is what good government should do. This is an example of the vast experience that the team at KMS has to offer those facing the challenges of local government.
Manager rule number one: Be a good listener and give the concerned citizen every opportunity to express their disappointments to the fullest. Lesson number two: Don't be in a hurry to provide a quick answer. If you come across as "yea, yea OK, I can solve this," some take it that you felt their problem was petty. I always said that a township manager should take some courses in psychology to deal effectively with the wide range of emotions that residents can convey. Lastly, although it is very tempting, and at times difficult to avoid after a lengthy confrontation, do not belittle the accuser, particularly at a public meeting.
Let me expound upon two actual situations. This particular farmer inherited the longtime family homestead. A township road dissected the property, barn on one side and home on the other. The biggest complaint was the mess the farmer would leave on the road from tracking his skid steer from one side of the road to stored feed bales and to empty his manure wagon. I visited the farm and let him know we had applied for assistance to make upgrades to the road. I offered to utilize township manpower to assist him in relocating the feed bales to the same side of the road.
We started the upgrade. When we reached the farmer's area, he angrily refused to consider moving his feed bales and insisted that if we ditched the site to improve the drainage, we supply sluice pipe so that he could continue his same practices. As an olive branch, I agreed to install some pipe so that he had access to the fields but strongly encouraged him to allow us to help with relocation. He did have plenty of room on the same side of the road as the barn, but "change" wasn't something he was interested in doing. To make the Township out to be the bad guy, he posted a large banner with my name prominently displayed that said if you were not happy with the condition of this road, you should contact the Township Manager, at the following number. I just wasn’t going to make this resident happy.
In another situation the local baseball supporters posted paid local advertisement on the fence around the field. Unfortunately, this was a violation of the current ordinance. The group was angry that they were not permitted to do this, as local businesses had already donated money for the signs as a way of supporting the team financially. Opening day was one month away and they were very unhappy. There wasn’t much time to react. I instructed the group to attend the next meeting and asked Council to consider at revision to the ordinance to allow the signage during the baseball season. I prepared a draft ordinance revision in anticipation of Council’s desire to do so. Once voted upon to have the required public hearing on the proposed change, the status of the ordinance became that of an “ordinance pending doctrine,” therefore allowing the group to place the signs in hopes that the ordinance would pass once the process was completed in a timely manner. Of course, it did, and the process worked to their advantage as I had planned it. The group was very pleased that I was able to assist them in finding a way to make this happen quickly.
In that situation, we were able to find a winning solution that made everyone happy, while in my previous example it was clear there was no way to make the farmer happy. But in both scenarios, we were creative and did our best to achieve a compromise.
So no, sadly, you can’t win them all. But you can – and should – always keep trying. If you’re facing unhappy residents, look for professionals that follow the rules I laid out earlier – Listen, Be Patient, and Avoid Confrontation. And I’ll add a fourth – Be creative. Think of new ideas that can get the job done while also appeasing resident concerns. That’s what we do here at Keystone Municipal Solutions. And it’s what makes this job so much fun.
Let’s "Fire this thing up." And let’s keep trying to win them all – even when you can’t. Because it’s the trying that matters.
About the Author
David L. Anthony is a member of the Keystone Municipal Solutions team of experts. He is a veteran of municipal government, having served more than 32 years in various positions of public service. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about David and the Keystone Municipal Solutions team, click here.