Local Politics: How to Pull the Strings Your Way
Business owners everywhere are wondering how the nation’s post-election political environment will affect revenues and profits in 2017. And no wonder: Legislation out of Washington can have a profound effect on the economy. Important as federal elections are, however, the health of your business more likely depends on decisions made at a lower level of the political food chain: Your city.
“It’s all too easy to focus our attention on legislation and regulations from the federal government,” said Sean Hadley, a Moorestown, New Jersey-based attorney active in government relations. “But the reality is that businesses are more affected by ordinances passed by their local communities than by anything that goes through — or doesn’t go through — Congress and the federal agencies.”
All Politics: LocalThe good news is you can make your voice heard.
Local governments typically control a host of mission-critical quality-of-business issues.
“The small business owner can have the greatest effect at the local government level, where the politicians can be the most approachable,” said Marc Pfeiffer, assistant director at the Bloustein Local Government Research Center in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “Politicians do not get re-elected by saying ‘no’ to people. They want to be able to say ‘yes.’”
Local governments typically control a host of mission-critical quality-of-business issues. Among them are business licensing and expansion, the design of storefronts and building exteriors, parking, billboards and any activities that affect the environment.
An unfriendly ordinance passed in any of those areas can throw a monkey wrench into your own business engine. Consider especially the control that local governments have over roads, including their quality, their cleanliness and the placement of navigational signs making it easy or difficult for customers to find a business. Even the direction of traffic depends upon local regulations. Imagine waking up one morning to discover the street in front of your business has been changed to a one-way conduit—in a direction not favorable to your customers.
Business ambitions can often be stymied by apparently arbitrary regulations.
“Zoning issues are a local concern and an issue many people don’t worry about until they start to expand or make business improvements such as installing new signs or larger and brighter windows,” Hadley said. “Then, they can run into problems with a requirement to preserve structural elements or utilize certain themes or colors.”
Business-government conflicts can also arise when measures are passed that affect employment practices — paid sick leave and minimum wage laws among them.
When you try to resolve your own issues in any of the above areas, Hadley pointed out, you’ll get no help from politicians at the national level.
“Changes to city and state regulations can only be addressed by your local representatives, not by Congress or the President,” he said.
Stay AlertGiven the realities of local politics, how can you protect your business from damaging regulations? First, you need to be informed about what’s going on in your town hall, including pending legislative initiatives.
“Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to local laws and regulations,” said Nancy Bocskor, a political consultant in Arlington, Virginia.
Second, you need to set up your own early warning system so you hear about harmful regulatory changes before they are so far advanced you can no longer effectively counter them.
“When a story about a new regulation appears in your local press, it’s too late for you to make an impact,” said Fairfield, Connecticut-based attorney Cliff Ennico, author of “Small Business Survival Guide.” “A lot of debate occurs before votes are taken on a proposed measure, and you need to get your voice heard early in the decision cycle. If there’s a hearing in three weeks about rezoning the downtown business district, and that’s where your business is located, you want to be at that hearing.”
So how do you set up an early warning system? One way is to take advantage of existing resources.
“Most municipalities have a web site,” Pfeiffer said.
You need to be informed about what’s going on in your town hall, including pending legislative initiatives.
Many local agencies now post their calendars online, making it easy to check their activities. Is a meeting scheduled for the near future? Obtain a copy of the agenda to see what topics might impact your business.
“Your town website may offer news feeds, e-newsletters, Facebook pages or Twitter posts,” Pfeiffer said.
All such media are conduits for news about proposed regulations.
“Also look for hyperlocal websites where people write blogs or maintain online newspapers about local government affairs,” Pfeiffer said.
Plugging into these information sources can provide you the alerts you need to take action to make your voice heard on proposed legislation.
Speak UpMaking your voice heard at town meetings is one way to influence your local political establishment. Another way is to reach out to local politicians, make your presence known and become a trusted source for feedback on how proposed legislation might affect the small business community.
Start with the councilperson who represents your specific neighborhood. Call that person’s office and make an appointment to discuss topics of interest to the business community. While there, ask for the names of other local movers and shakers with whom you should initiate a dialog.
You can also invite your representatives to visit your place of business.
“Let the politicians see what you do, how many people you employ and how much tax revenue you generate,” Bocskor said. “You need to be proactive in making sure they understand the value you bring to your community.”
Whatever the venue, establish a dialog rather than a one-way diatribe. Consider emphasizing your potential to help the politician do a better job, by making a statement such as this: “I have my finger on the pulse of small business. I can be a friendly resource for you. Call me whenever you have any questions about the impact of proposed legislation on small business.”
This plants an important seed that can flower into a measure of influence: The politician will see you not only as a spokesperson for your own interest, but also for those of the business community at large.
Offer to HelpHelping a politician do a better job promotes the kind of win-win relationship that goes a long way toward building your power base.
“Politics is all about back scratching,” Ennico said. “Tell the politician how you will help him or her in exchange for support for your position on proposed legislation.”
If the politician supports a bill you want passed, will you invite him or her to speak before your civic group on the topic? That can help garner more voters.
While you can employ the process described above for as many politicians as you like, your time is limited so you will need to be selective.
“Find out who the powerful people are,” Ennico suggested. “In every community, there are people who are effective in making things happen and people who are not. The former might not be the people with the biggest offices. In one town, for example, it might be the head of the local Democratic party rather than the mayor.”
Your informal talks with local politicians will reveal the names of these power players. Those are the ones you want to cultivate.
Reach OutAs the above suggestions imply, your first contact with a politician should be to establish a dialog. Avoid making a request right away.
“It’s never good to start a relationship with your needs at the forefront,” Hadley said. “Remember, you will need this person’s assistance over the long-term.”
Once you have cultivated a growing relationship, though, you can feel free to approach the politician with your own ideas. Perhaps you want to block a proposed regulation, or perhaps you want to promote an entirely new business-friendly ordinance. At this point, you will be happy you have a friendly person to call.
Despite the relationship you have established with the politician, you want to present your case as benefitting the community at large rather than your business in particular. That requires doing your homework. When speaking about how a proposed regulation will affect your revenues or your employment activity, do so in the context of how your activities, and those of other businesses in your town, help the region grow and prosper. Do the numbers.
“Back up your story with data,” Bocskor said. “Show the official how a certain proposed regulation will affect x, y and z. People need to know the consequences of government actions that too often sound good before you do the math.”
Present your case as benefitting the community at large rather than your business in particular.
Budget ConcernsSpeaking of numbers, few are as important as the ones in your town’s budget. You may not ordinarily give much thought to that arcane document, but it can have an outsized influence on your business.
“Budget issues are really issues of priority,” Hadley said. “Suppose you need improvements to the roads leading to your place of business, and you were able to convince your town to pass an ordinance requiring that. You think you have accomplished your goal, but if the town budget does not allocate the requisite funds, you will see no road improvements over the coming year. Without the money to fund it, an ordinance is only worth the paper it’s written on.”
Vital as it is, involvement with the town budget is a long game.
“You have to start small, by getting to know your town officials,” Hadley said. “You can’t just walk into your town hall and say, ‘I want to know everything about the budget and want to influence it.’ Your town officials will not be forthcoming. You have to get to know them first on a personal level as a small business owner.”
Team Up for SuccessThe suggestions above have championed the political power of the small business owner acting alone. But there’s no doubt scheduling constraints can hamper the most well intentioned effort.
“Any kind of community work is a time vampire,” Ennico said. “We are so busy running our shops and working 24/7 that taking time out for civic involvement is a lot to ask. It’s easy to let things slide because you are too busy.”
Reach out to your fellow business owners for assistance. When they see you have blazed a trail through the wilderness of local politics, they will be more willing to lend a hand. Join your local chamber of commerce or business council.
Small business people working together can improve the local business climate for everyone.
“If you don’t reach out, you will become invisible to local politicians,” Ennico said. “And when you become invisible, bad things can happen.”
Know the RulesRespect ethical boundaries when you deal with politicians.
“You have to follow the rules regarding expenditures or gifts,” said Sean Hadley, a Moorestown, New Jersey-based attorney active in government relations. “This is true even for smaller social gratuities.”
You might be tempted to invite your local mover and shaker to lunch, for example, given that meal’s traditional role as a business negotiation ice-breaker. Bad idea. You do not want to offer a favor with a financial component, no matter how modest.
Offering to treat the politician to lunch (or even a cup of coffee), warned Hadley, can put the individual in the awkward position of having to turn down a social offer. You don’t want to start your relationship on a sour note.
“Even if a luncheon is not technically bribery, politicians are very suspicious of anything that might be misinterpreted that way by a third-party,” said Fairfield, Connecticut-based attorney Cliff Ennico, author of “Small Business Survival Guide.” “In today’s world a politician is only one scandal away from being worthless.”