The quick answer is “yes”. Read on to understand how I think it could become a great voice for the people….if it’s done properly.
I often shake my head when people come out of the woodwork kicking and screaming about something they’re upset about when it’s too late to do anything about it. I get it. Folks have busy lives and families. Most are working every day trying to stay afloat while the tide keeps rising. After all, we elect people to take care of things and look out for our best interests, right? In the words of Sarah Palin: “How’s that workin’ fer ya?”
Government needs to be on a leash. We the people have the power to control that leash….if enough of us put a hand to it. It’s built right into our very well designed system. Unfortunately, at the moment, very few people actually know what their government is doing until it’s too late and the tax bill arrives to pay for it. We have let go of the leash. The result is unsustainable increases in our property taxes. At the moment, in Wakefield, these large tax increases are mostly due to our school budgets. I will save that rant for another blog post.
Look at the back of a one dollar bill. There is an eagle on the right. It’s holding a bundle of arrow sticks in one talon. The symbolism is that when banded together, we are unbreakable. There is power in numbers. Just look at the teachers union as one great example of how to band together to get what you want. It works for them most of the time.
CROW (concerned residents of Wakefield) or something similar could be that bundle that has a much more powerful voice than any one individual because it could represent many votes of like-minded people.
If we look back a number of years, some of us remember the original beginnings of CROW. I can’t remember why it got originally jump started but It existed for a while and a number of meetings were held. I went to a few. My takeaway was that there was a lot of complaining going on, much of it legitimate, but there was not enough work done on advocating an effective resolution to concerns. The group slowly fizzled after the original founders, Arthur Fulton passed away and Charlie Edwards became an elected official. Relf Fogg tried to keep it going but interest waned.
Recently, Leigh Nichols attempted to resurrect CROW by starting a Facebook page with that name. It was a brave step and I appreciate his willingness to take the risk. I assume that the idea may have partially come about as a reaction to our recent tax bills. Leigh had some good ideas about having meetings and a place online where folks could gather.
A concern was raised on the newly created CROW Facebook page about the possible taking of a Town owned vehicle for personal use by an employee. It’s a legitimate question that could have been asked and quickly answered, if only the right people were contacted. The problem was with the approach.
It rapidly devolved into an issue about a person. Sides were quickly taken and battle lines drawn. Emotional one-liners were posted and people became angry. Ultimately, a statement was issued by the Director of Public Works that clarified the situation. All the drama was for nothing and folks who were outraged about a few gallons of gas are still mute about a six hundred thousand dollar increase in the next school budget. Somebody please explain that to me!
We can learn from this exchange how NOT to approach big or small issues that concern us. If we think a little, we can do much better and if we do it right, we can have a positive effect. When it comes to re-establishing a group like CROW, I don’t think that a rocky start is any reason to throw away the idea of organizing, no matter what name we choose to call it.
We have the right to peaceably assemble and discuss issues of concern about how our government is operating. It’s what makes our system so much better than many other countries. But we have to use that right and take hold of that government leash to guide our elected officials in the direction that keeps us comfortable. There should be no sides or battle lines drawn. We’re all in this together as we try to find a balance between our expectations of our government and the cost associated with it. So how do we do that? How do we organize? How do we advocate our position effectively…..and get results?
Due to my involvement with Clearview, I have been exposed to over a thousand local government meetings. I have been a participant in many of them. I have learned what works and what doesn’t.
I have used many poor approaches that usually did not produce the results that I desired.
Even though the idea appeals to me, I’m not taking charge or volunteering to be an organizer of any group, mainly because my plate is full with my Clearview association, but I am willing to offer advice based on some experience. I hope it will be helpful to those who step up to the plate.
1: Let’s start with the obvious. When starting an advocacy group like this, the first thing you need is members. We already have a couple local facebook pages where an invite and a meeting place and time can be posted. Facebook may be a cesspool at times, but it’s the best way to reach thousands of people quickly. There is also the local access TV channel where announcements can be made and videos posted.
2: As the group forms, ask folks what they would like the organization to do and come up with a statement that explains that. Folks want to be sure of what they are getting into. There should be no need to require a membership or to sign up for anything. Just get together and talk for a start.
3: Have a posted agenda for your meeting and stick to it so folks can come prepared for the topic to be discussed. It’s fine to have a portion of the meeting set aside for expressing concerns (a.k.a. gripe session). The group could then decide which issue(s) could be researched and it could be a topic of discussion at the next meeting.
4: Have a speaker give a short talk about a subject that is designed to inform and educate the public about the local government process. For example, it was suggested that someone make a video about what you can do at the annual deliberative session. Another idea would be how to file for a property tax abatement. These talks could be recorded and posted online for later reference…..and most importantly your organization will begin building credibility. Once you have that, folks will really listen to you.
5: NEVER talk about ANY person at any meeting. Stick to ISSUES only. People become quickly uncomfortable when they hear what is perceived as a personal attack. Your organization’s credibility will go to zero and you will lose public support and attendance if you go down this road.
6: Don’t take on too much at once. At each meeting have one or two topics that are discussed. Then have the group discuss the possible approaches that might be effective advocacy towards a resolution.
Decide together what you are going to do and assign folks to carry out any tasks and report back to the members. Sometimes, a simple e-mail to the appropriate official can produce answers.
7: Assign a strong moderator or chairman to run the meetings and keep them on track. Emotions can run high and things can go off the rails unless everyone remains focused. Make the meeting rules clear to all. Everyone should have an equal opportunity to speak and no one should be allowed to dominate the meeting.
I’m sure more ideas can be added. The focus should always be on what the issue is, what do we want to accomplish…and what is the most effective way to get results.
There has been talk about establishing CROW as a 501c-3 non-profit organization. I can find no reference at the State level that CROW ever had any type of non-profit status. If you have any evidence to that effect, please post it. I have experience with creating a non-profit (Clearview Community Television Services) so I know a lot about it. It’s a tremendous amount of work just to get it started and it costs a fair amount of money. Even if you write all the necessary documents yourself, you will need some level of lawyer involvement. I think the application fee for the IRS is about $800. I don’t see where it is even necessary for this situation at this time.
The primary reason for establishing a non-profit is to avoid paying taxes to the IRS. In some cases, you can apply for grants to fund your organization, but there is tremendous competition and very little money. You are only given this status if you can prove that you are providing a service to the public as a whole. I don’t see CROW handling much money at all. If you do get non-profit status with the State and IRS, then you are obligated to a fair amount of yearly bullshit and paperwork because you have to file an income tax and state forms with fees! Who would want to do that? I would not recommend it. If I haven’t discouraged you enough, get a copy of the book “Non-Profits for Dummies.” (Yes, that’s the name of it.). That should do it!
And yes, I’m back. I apologize for not writing for a while, but I have been very involved with Clearview getting the streaming thing going and new staff trained. It’s just beginning to loosen up a little and it’s budget season so there will be lots to talk about between now and March. Stay tuned.
I end this piece with a few things to think about:
Here’s an unhappy thought: Did you know that an employee at the SAU is being given a $9000 raise next year by a vote of certain members of our school board……and the budget committee voted DOWN (7-2) a motion to cut that amount in half? What were they thinking?!
Here’s a happy thought: If a hundred or so folks went to the Town deliberative session, a motion could be made and might pass to cut the school budget increase in half and there would be nothing they could do about it. That’s the kind of power you have in numbers.
And the final question is: Who wants to kickstart this organization or group? I don’t care what you name it but I will come to a meeting.