February 21, 2020

Seeing into the cracks: How municipal lobbying differs from state & federal lobbying

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At any level of government, the key to successfully influencing policy is staying informed and building relationships. But there are a few key points where lobbying city and county governments differs from state and federal. 

There’s less money in local government.

Running a campaign for city council is relatively inexpensive, costing somewhere between $2,000 and $15,000, depending on the city and the seat. 

Most local government offices are only part-time positions, and officials may earn as little as $5,000 per year or nothing at all. Cities and counties also have limited or completely non-existent staff available to help elected officials research issues that they need to vote on.

The low-budget nature of local government has several implications for lobbyists who need wins. 

A local elected official faces less pressure to stay in the good graces of stakeholders who can write large checks in order to get re-elected… except in big cities, negative ad campaigns are few and far between. And without full-time staff available to research upcoming issues, local officials often rely on outside experts and lobbyists to educate them. But lobbyists should avoid manipulating the message when providing education, so as not to break trust with the local official. As with any relationship, transparency builds trust. 

Since it’s almost impossible to make a career out of local government, local offices see significant turnover, as officials either try to move up in government, or just retire from what may have become an exhausting civic obligation with few rewards. This means lobbyists must often build new relationships from scratch with every local election. 

Local government is less partisan.

Elected officials at the local level don’t typically announce their national political party affiliation, and even if you figure out whether a particular council person leans conservative or liberal, it won’t necessarily indicate their likelihood of voting for or against a local ordinance. 

It’s important to connect with each member of a local government body and get to know their personal position on controversial issues. Many are open to considering both sides of all issues since there is rarely a voting bloc in local government. 

Local lobbying is less regulated. 

Although lobbying at the municipal level is typically less regulated than at higher levels of government, most cities do have ordinances about who must register as a lobbyist and what lobbying activities need to be reported. 

Most local rules require anyone who is being compensated for the time they spend meeting with a local government official to disclose their financial incentive and report how many hours they spend in those meetings. It’s also a best practice to reveal whether you or the organization you represent has a direct financial interest in the subject of your meeting. And it’s never OK to buy elected officials anything, whether that’s lunch, a cup of coffee, or tickets to a professional sporting event.

Now, are most city attorneys chomping at the bit to prosecute lobbying rulebreakers? No, but that doesn’t mean lobbyists should ignore the rules. To preserve trust with your local officials, it’s important at a bare minimum to follow the spirit of the laws. 

Local Government Gets Less Coverage.

Hundreds and hundreds of reporters cover the goings on in Washington DC every day, for media outlets around the world.

January 27, 2020

How Texas Cities Responded to Gun Violence

Screen Shot 2020-01-26 at 4.02.08 PMIn the months following the two mass shootings in southern Texas in August last year, there were no significant changes in gun policy in U.S. federal law. Meanwhile, a slate of Texas laws passed during the 2019 legislative session took effect on Sept. 1, all of which loosened restrictions on guns.

But looking at what happens at the state government level does not tell the whole story about the gun policy debate in Texas. Throughout the state, several cities and towns have taken a different approach to gun policy in the wake of the two mass shootings in August. Many of them have issued statements calling for action at the state level to enact common-sense gun violence prevention measures, and they’ve also taken local action through assembling task forces and proposing voluntary gun buybacks. 

Many of these discussions don’t get coverage in the local press, but a quick search of the CurateLOCAL database can bring you right to the minutes of these discussions, help you take the pulse of the local community on the issues, and help you find out about the next opportunity for public comment. 

Here are three examples pulled from meeting minutes of cities throughout Texas: 

On Aug. 22, Austin established a task force to study gun violence and put some teeth into an effort to collect more data about gun violence. The minutes from that meeting record the councilmembers’ different perspectives on the goals of that task force, such as this passionate passage from Councilmember Alison Alter, the sponsor of the proposal:

“Due to the restrictions passed at the state and federal levels, we have limited tools to solve the gun violence crisis...Some may say a task force is unnecessary because we know what we need to do. Yes, it's true we know exactly what needs to be done at the federal level and the state level to have the greatest impact, such as finally requiring universal background checks on all gun sales and implementing extreme risk protective order laws. Those all require the cooperation of state and federal government. But I believe we can and must do more at the local level.”

The meeting minutes from the City of San Marcos city council meeting on August 20, 2019 show how many residents vehemently resist even a small change in gun policy. During the 30-minute period for public comment, 10 people spoke out about a proposal to ban the concealed carry of guns at local government meetings. The proposal eventually failed. 

One resident’s opinions proved that you don’t have to be a gun owner to show up to a meeting to defend gun rights: 

“Sara Lee Underwood-Myers...stated that she is floored that the Hays County Government Center security always makes her take her fingernail file out to her car. She stated that she is not licensed to carry. She stated that we have to continue with our right to carry and it is bad policy to pass.”

At a meeting on Sept. 18 (PDF), the San Antonio city council passed a voluntary buyback program. The minutes give a glimpse of the decision-makers’ goals for the program:

“The CCR suggested that the program allow individuals to anonymously turn in firearms without fear of legal repercussions while also developing a public awareness campaign to appeal to residents in communities with a high concentration of gun violence...Mayor Nirenberg noted the resolution passed by the City Council to reduce gun violence and stated that any step is better than none.”

Gun violence is just one of many social issues that often see more action at the local level than at state or national levels. To find out how CurateLOCAL can help you keep up with the conversation in any town or city in any state, request a demo

January 06, 2020

How to figure out a small town’s take on wind power from thousands of miles away

Beautiful green landscape with windmills viewed from the air

Wind energy is a controversial topic where municipal governments often hold as much power as states. And it’s a topic with surprising opponents and allies.

Those in favor cite the positive environmental impact of reducing reliance on nonrenewable energy sources, the economic impact of lease revenue for landowners, and the increased revenue for local governments from property tax. But those against may oppose it for a host of reasons: aesthetics, noise pollution, the impact on migratory birds and other wildlife, or the nuisance of a flickering shadow that drives humans and animals nuts when the sun is low in the sky.

Since wind farms are typically installed in less populated areas, the municipalities that make crucial zoning, tax, and regulatory decisions in support or opposition of wind power are often very small. Decisions can be swayed by a small number of people, and board meetings where decisions happen are often not covered by a local newspaper. 

To find out what a town’s attitude toward wind power is, you could make a trip to talk to locals. But before doing that, you could take a look at the CurateLOCAL database and search keywords like “wind turbine,” “wind energy” or “wind farm” in the communities you’re looking at. 

Here’s a sampling of comments you might find. 

In Seneca County, Ohio, (population 55,000) the Board of Commissioners approved a resolution in support of a state bill concerning industrial wind turbine projects on Nov. 14. From the county’s recap of an Oct. 10 meeting found in the Curate database, you can read an excerpt from one of the letters county officials sent to the state concerning wind turbine development:   

“In Seneca County, we have had significant public discourse around the development of wind resources and utility-scale wind farms. We have incredibly engaged citizens and public officials. If wind development moves forward in Ohio, we feel duty-bound to offer our recommendations for improving the wind development process.”

That gives a good indication that Seneca County residents are cautious about wind turbine development, but haven’t ruled it out completely.

In Logan County, Colorado, (population 22,000) the Board of Commissioners approved a resolution to encourage on-site manufacture of wind turbines at a meeting on Oct. 1. At their September work session, the minutes show that Logan County was responding to a regional effort to attract more wind turbines:

“[State Sen.] Greg Brophy recently met with the Board to encourage adoption of a resolution in eastern Colorado counties that is intended to unite the counties to attract the wind farm growth. Yuma County has passed a similar resolution, Sedgwick County is considering a resolution, and Kit Carson County is working on one.”

The minutes from a Special Town Board Meeting and Public Hearing in the town of Enfield, New York, (population 3,500) on Oct. 16, record the varied opinions of residents and committee members about a draft of a local wind energy law, which some speakers called “stringent but not unreasonable” and others called “far too restrictive.”

The recap of one resident’s comments notes that:

“...she is frustrated with people who won’t have turbines in their backyards, but want turbines in Enfield. She sat through many meetings with a gag order. She would never want that to happen to anyone else. This law needs to be put in place to protect the safety of homes and residents. She would never want to live next to a wind turbine that would make her worry about noise, ice, and if they would fall over.”

With a CurateLOCAL subscription, you can research past discussions in city and county meeting minutes and agendas, and you can also stay up-to-date on current discussions with weekly reports. Any time your keywords appear in the documents from the municipalities or counties you’re following, you’ll get an alert, giving you time to engage with local government and get involved in the discussion.

Find out how you can stay on top of local discussions about wind power development by requesting a demo of CurateLOCAL.

December 30, 2019

3 ways stepping outside my comfort zone led to professional growth in 2019

From CEO and co-founder, Taralinda Willis.

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For the 2018 holidays, Dale and I invited the entire Curate team over for dinner. We all fit around our six-seater kitchen table. 

This year, our staff of 15 would have been very crowded at that table.

Curate saw tremendous growth this year, fueled by the closing of our $1.6 million fundraising round over the summer. One big move was developing a customer success program, which helped us systematically find out exactly which new features our customers wanted most. Based on that feedback, we made the strategic decision to focus our development on expanding the CurateLOCAL database, and we grew it from 12 to 50 states. 

We also had to part ways with a couple of employees, which was extremely painful. You put so much time and energy into your team, and for it to not work out is really disappointing. But that pain was a catalyst for us to invest in the human side of the business. 

As part of that process, we developed company values. One of them, fittingly, is “Be Uncomfortable.” And let me tell you, we’ve all been uncomfortable this year. Did I mention how weird it is to pitch your business to a room full of strangers, knowing they will decide on the spot whether to fund you? 

But even in the day-to-day of running a growing startup, there are so many opportunities to be uncomfortable. Looking back, I see three recurring situations where leaning into discomfort led to incredible professional growth. 

1. Recognizing my limitations and seeking outside support

When we started the year, we did not have a standardized hiring or onboarding process. We hired people who could do the job and who instinctively felt like a good fit. And it was working until all of a sudden it wasn’t. Having more people was supposed to make things easier, but our communication was breaking down. 

Just as this stress was reaching a breaking point, we met Keith Fuller from All About EX. We knew we needed to improve our employee processes, so we brought on Keith to help. 

I knew bringing in an outside perspective would be valuable, but I was totally surprised when he had us start by defining our company values. I didn’t realize how important these values would be, but now that we have them, we use them to make difficult decisions frequently.  

When it became clear that the biggest growth opportunity was on the CurateLOCAL side of the business, I realized I was going to need to learn to speak the language of local government, which was a completely new world for me. 

I had to find people who could get me up to speed in a new space. Finding the right people to ask for help was daunting, but I tapped into my network and found people to be incredibly generous with their time.

2. Understanding the value of my time as the CEO

One of the hardest things to wrap my head around as I’ve transitioned out of the mindset of an individual contributor is the value of my time and my obligation to use it on CEO-level work. I feel very strongly about embodying servant leadership, and when we first started, this meant that I took care of small details to make life easier for my team, like buying snacks at Costco on the weekends and ordering office supplies. Now I know that I can’t afford to focus on those details, even though it feels conceited to say that. 

Valuing my time also means being discerning in who I meet with. As I tapped into my network to find people who could educate me about local government, I found it was more helpful to meet several times with the same person than to meet once with everyone I got connected to. Taking everyone up on the offer could mean losing hours of work without gaining new insight. Again, it feels uncomfortable to place a higher value on my time than on someone else’s, but that’s the reality of being a CEO.

3. Letting things go to empower my team to grow

I’m a doer. I constantly have to be reminded to let things go. Luckily, I have my board and Dale, my husband and co-founder, keeping me in check.

One thing I’ve held onto as my team has grown is having a one-on-one meeting at least biweekly with every person who reports to me. But with a larger team, that now takes a significant chunk of my time, and things that I used to handle in the background can fall through the cracks. Dale has been great to gently point out what I need to delegate.

It can be hard to assign tasks that you know are outside of an employee’s job description. Luckily, everyone on my team is willing to step up and pitch in wherever they’re needed. And because of that, I’ve gotten to watch each person on my team grow in their career because of something they took on this year that made them uncomfortable. It has been awesome and an honor to watch them mature in the business with me. 

Looking forward to 2020, I’m incredibly excited about our growth and how we will better support our customers and their access to municipal data. We’re taking our national expansion and revamping our product to better support our customers. We’re investing in our product, our AI, and our data - it’s going to be a great year. Here’s to a new year filled with many more uncomfortable opportunities for growth! 

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