Friday, August 3, 2012

Contacting Local Government

(Pictured from L to R: Miss Orem 2012, Amy Tuttle, wow, I look short next to those two, and Orem City Mayor, Jim Evans)

When organizing a free s:w.a.p. you will unlikely be required to obtain a permit from your city.  It is, however, not only a courtesy to give your city a “heads-up,” but a good opportunity to use any available community leadership communication.

My initial action was to contact our city’s Neighborhood-in-Action (NIA) Chair.  She has regular communication with representatives of the 20+ neighborhood regions of the city.  It was on her recommendation that I attended a city council meeting where I could, during the “open mic night” portion of the meeting, speak briefly about what I was planning, along with where and when.  (This got the event officially recorded in the meeting minutes by the City Recorder.)  After explaining the event, I put forth two requests: 1) would the City be willing to spread the word via official channels like the city newsletter and/or through the NIA network, and 2) would the City be willing to waive the reservation fee on the park pavilion.  The standing policy in my city is that City Council does not take immediate action on any items brought up during the “open mic night” portion, but if action is expected, one way or another, the Council invites the speaker to leave his or her name, address and telephone number with the recorder, saying that “someone will contact you.”

After the meeting let out, I received positive feedback from a couple of Council Members and the Mayor asked me to make an appointment to meet with him.  I felt that I was heard and appreciated. (That later meeting with the Mayor was mainly a discussion about my other hobby of low-waste living and recycling, etc., as the City was in the middle of renewing its waste management contract.) 

I later learned that the City has a lot on its plate and that to be heard, you have to speak up—multiple times, and in person.  After waiting for a couple of weeks without hearing anything, I started in again.  I went in person to try to speak to individuals on city staff who might be able to get the ball rolling for me.  I attempted the utilities department, someone in the City Manager’s office, and then went to the Recorder’s office to check on the status of my response.  They were surprised that I had not been contacted, discovered that it was lost in transit, and re-submitted the request for someone from the City to call me back.

The City Manager called me back.  He asked me to email him a flyer about the event so that he could post it up around city offices.  He would then task the NIA Chair to forward electronic copies to the various neighborhood chairs.  I prepared 2 files—one in English and one in Spanish (I asked my brother-in-law to translate it for me.)  I have no confirmation of how extensively those flyers were then distributed.

As for getting the reservation fee waived . . . I did not pursue it further.  One of the volunteers, however, pursued it on her own.  She called one of the City Council Members, whom she knew personally, to ask about the possibility of refunding my money or waiving any fees at future events.  This is what we learned: there are endless non-profit organizations that could benefit from waived reservation fees.  The City cannot favor one organization over another; it has to draw a line somewhere.  I understand that line of thinking and I support the City’s decision.  (More about costs in an upcoming post.)

On the recommendation of a friend who has more experience in public relations, I emailed Miss Orem and Miss Orem Teen to invite them to volunteer at the event, crowns and sashes in place.  (I understand that this is not a city “government” entity, but it falls in the category of city representatives.)  The director of the City royalty really liked the idea and said she wanted to get all the attendants to come as well, personal schedules permitting.  We were grateful to have participation from Miss Orem 2012, Amy Tuttle.

The last time I reached out to the City before this summer's Free Swap was inspired by a Council Member’s request during an impromptu grocery store conversation.  I emailed the Mayor, City Council Members, City Manager, and the NIA Chair a few days before the event to personally invite them to attend and participate if they wished.  I heard—via email response to me or a phone conversation with one of the volunteers—that 3 of the Council Members were out of town, but were very interested in how it all turned out.  The Mayor came, brought some donations that swiftly found new homes, and stayed to observe.  He seemed very encouraged by the community response.

Once those initial government connections are made, subsequent communication should go more smoothly.

(Side note: My city, Orem, Utah, has a population of just over 90,000 residents.)