President of the HNA, Stacy Fisher’s op ed, Why Do Wheels Keep Coming Off Town Board Bus?, from the November 22nd issue of the Scarsdale Inquirer, calls on all Hartsdale residents to be fully engaged in creating a shared vision for Greenburgh. She calls out that, “It is more likely that we can work together if we adopt clear ways of communicating and processes that support real progress.
Link to the e-edition here:
Why do the wheels keep coming off the Greenburgh Town Board bus?
On November 13th the Greenburgh Town Board held its regularly scheduled meeting wherein public comment is part of the format. The agenda, which is now more consistently published 24 hours in advance of the meeting, was dense. Most important to the residents was the 2020 budget. Many made time to attend and comment. Now here is where the first wheel comes off the bus. Plan for adequate meeting time to discuss complex material to hear the point of view of others. Rather than devoting the entire meeting to the budget, the funding that provides the ability for the Town to operationalize any and all services; the Town Board front loaded the evening with presentations. Residents sat for nearly two hours before the budget hearings began. Two hours. That first wheel, regardless of intent, had the impact on the residents of a total lack of respect for tax paying constituents, their time and concerns.
Capital budget hearing began at 9:40pm. First to speak during public comment was Eric Zinger, Chair of the Financial Efficacy committee for Hartsdale Neighbors Association (HNA) and former candidate for the 2019 Town Council open seats. Mr. Zinger spoke from well prepared comments that respectfully acknowledge where expenses had been managed to consider the current economic climate while calling out specific increases. Mr. Zinger raise the question that remained the focus for most of that Public Hearing. Is the town raising property taxes? Second wheel propelled off the axle. Know your data and anticipate questions that may be controversial including correcting or clarifying impacts. Own it.
Several additional property owners took to the microphone to echo concerns, some increasingly passionate, about the disconnect between the numbers in the capital budget. Given the socio-economically diverse residents, the various complexities of the various neighborhood need, and the overall amount of taxes collected; surely these budget hearings count as one of the most important meetings of the year requiring an entire meeting session. Not surprising there are passionate voices and questions peppered inquiring what is a “need to have” versus a “nice to have” and how was that determined.
Third wheel rolls away. Create a communication process to set information free for review, especially if it will be potentially met with opposition. Allow query and debate prior to the formal meeting. “Socializing” budgets, project funding plans, policy changes and the like that require understanding, digesting and constructive challenge.
Unfortunately for all of us, the public comment section of the evening quickly became contentious, combative, disrespectful and unpleasant to experience and watch. I assert it didn’t work for anyone. The Town Board stop taking questions as a dialogue with the public and chose to change the format to one wherein the public comments were all stated before any response from the Town Board. Fourth wheel off on the roadside like roadkill. Check your style and tone while you continue to make factual points. The ability to maintain an executive presence and press on one’s points will bring others along in addition to keeping the discussion in forward motion. In the specific case of the 2020 budget, residents are not hostile lunatics to be summarily dismissed nor are we an open checkbook just waiting for the number to be told to us. And the Town Board is trying to keep the lights on and run the town. There is room for improvement all around the town.
Here are a few tips that I encourage Greenburgh, whether an elected official, town staff or resident; to consistently leverage as a best practice.
- Define and communicate the rules of engagement
- Respectfully adhere to the rules of engagement
- Provide meeting materials well in advance based on complexity
- Come to the meeting curious and prepared
- Hear others – asking probing questions is a best practice that compliments listening
- Demonstrate and foster civil, respectful discord that keeps the dialogue open and promotes forward action to agreement
I don’t blame the Town Board. I blame us, the residents. We don’t schedule time to participate in a healthy discourse with our local elected officials. Whatever we’re not changing, we’re choosing. Many of us are tired, resigned, apathetic, disillusioned or maybe even happy with the status quo. Whatever the motivation, or lack thereof, we are absentee until we’re not. It is easier to do the incremental maintenance to keep the wheel rolling around on the bus, than to change a tire while the bus is motoring down the highway.