Our experience over the past 6 months convinces us that communities across the US can successfully pass resolutions in their local governments to support the principles of the American Anti-Corruption Act (www.anticorruptionact.org). As team leaders in Central New Jersey, we have participated in, encouraged and observed the approval of municipal anti-corruption resolutions in two towns over this period – Princeton and Ewing Township, NJ. If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.
Both communities have middle-class residents active in commercial and civic affairs. But, there the similarity ends. Princeton is home to a world-class university center, professional classes, and an exurb of New York City’s financial and information economies. Ewing Township is a suburb of Trenton and shares some of it grit. Its industrial and manufacturing base has been altered by global change but still it is a proud working class community, complete with town-gown tensions with the local state college.
These differences aside, both towns showed the truth of our data: The overwhelming majority of residents are concerned about the “pay to play” culture, the corruption of politics, and the need for campaign finance reform. Council members generally reflect their constituents in approving our resolutions. In the words of Ewing’s business administrator, “We had no issue supporting this [resolution]. It was a good thing.”
While there are no doubt regional differences and local circumstances, three elements should confidently guide your plan. They are: relationships, leadership and persistence.
Of the three elements, relationships are probably the most important. In Princeton, our team leaders are local residents making our job of convincing the Council to adopt our resolution easier. In Ewing, we – and Represent.Us – are outsiders. Even if our cause is good, you must have someone who lives locally, from the “heart” of the community, to build trust and complement what Council members and civic leaders might otherwise know in their “heads” is right. We had such a volunteer among our members – and he made a big difference. You need to have or recruit such volunteers for your effort. And, if these people can also represent different political points of view, all the better!
Working with the mayor or council president increases your chances of success – and even the likelihood of getting your resolution on the municipal agenda in a timely fashion. All cities and towns now are burdened with responsibilities, from school budgets to repairing roads, from mandates from their states to local economic development. Adopting an anti-corruption resolution can seem like “pie in the sky,” unless a locally elected leader, who is willing to help you move forward, says, yes, this is important too.
Even with the first two elements in place do not assume that your effort will be “a slam dunk.” That is an invitation to frustration and, possibly worse, disappointment. People – and this includes your volunteers as well as your local government officials – lead busy lives with many competing priorities and demands. Be prepared for the long haul with patience and persistence. This may mean many meetings, phone calls, emails — and a lot of cajoling! But, in the end, the time spent should pay off.
The issue of corruption is in the air. People know something is not right but they are not sure how to go from that to getting something done. Passing a local anti-corruption resolution is a first big step in making that connection. Use the three elements outlined above and be confident!
Susan Colby, Ph.D., and David Goodman, Ph.D., are team leaders of the Central New Jersey Chapter of Represent.Us.