Getting more business voices involved in local politics is often easier said than done.
From the pages of In Business magazine.
Spring election season may rarely offer the kind of bizarre and at times rancorous campaigns we were treated to last year, but what local April elections lack in public spectacle they often make up for in actual ground-level impact.
City, county, and school leaders are the ones making decisions at a local level that affect us all much more in our day-to-day lives than whatever’s going on in Washington, D.C. Local elections are a time for everymen (and women) to get involved and earn a seat at the table with other decision makers.
A voice that’s sometimes missing from the discussions is that of business owners and leaders. Many of the decisions that are made at the city or county level impact business interests across the Greater Madison region, but the business perspective is not always well represented when proposals are being formed.
In Business spoke with experts familiar with the local civic landscape to examine why so few business people get involved in local politics and what can be done about it.
Got the time?
The biggest impediment to anyone running for local office and serving on a body like the Madison Common Council is time, says Scott Resnick.
Resnick, COO of Hardin Design and Development and the entrepreneur-in-residence for StartingBlock Madison, served two terms on the Common Council from 2011–2015, and also ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2015.
“The dedication that a public servant has to commit to in order to do an exemplary job takes time,” explains Resnick. “Many meetings run late into the night. At the worst end of it one of my longest meetings lasted past 4:30 in the morning. I got to city hall at about 5 p.m. and left at 4:45 a.m. That was the Grandview Commons grocery store debate — the most controversial grocery store during my time on the council.
“Unfortunately, those types of experiences become drawbacks to serving, not only to business owners but everyday residents,” Resnick continues. “If you have a family, a job that is constricting, or if you just want to have a work-life balance, politics at the role of local elected leader may not necessarily be obtainable.”
So, what’s the alternative?
Serving on a city committee, notes Kevin Little vice president of government relations for the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce.
“Oftentimes running for office can be a daunting task when you think about campaigns, so I often steer people toward committees,” says Little. “There are so many vacancies on a variety of committees, not only in the city of Madison but beyond, where they just need residents to raise their hand and commit to going to a couple meetings.”
That’s not just hyperbole on Little’s part. According to the city of Madison’s website, of 102 boards, commissions, and committees operating as a part of city government, 42 of them have at least one vacancy. That’s a lot of open seats that could be filled by experienced business voices offering a valuable perspective.
“When you think about the city of Madison, so much work is done at the committee level,” states Little. “That’s where these proposals get started and really where you can shape them. I think about some past regulatory proposals on issues like public safety, energy efficiency, building design, development, and aesthetics — good discussions, but it was because there were people with a diversity of perspectives at these committee meetings. They were able to ask good questions about impact that led to a more sound proposal that received strong support when it got to that full council level.”
Little says the chamber often has members interested in being more civically engaged but not sure about leaping into a campaign for elected office. He frequently steers those members to the committee route as a way to dip their toe in the water to learn how government operates and what they can expect from service.
“I think that there are a lot of people who are interested in policy and solving community problems,” notes Little, “but some of the people who fit into that category may be less interested in politics. Campaigns can feel overwhelming, but that’s also why oftentimes the path to people running for office is just getting involved at the committee level. You get to know the people and the issues, and gain confidence and understanding of what serving feels like.”
Little says the chamber recently convened an informational session targeting people in the private sector, particularly young professionals, to educate them on the opportunities that do exist for greater civic involvement.
Attendees heard from other area professionals who work full-time during the day but then serve on a city committee at night. The idea was to provide firsthand perspectives about what committees do and what the experience of serving on one is like. “I think everybody has that desire to see a diversity of perspectives at the table and there are a lot of people who will support you if you’re willing to give that time,” Little says. “There are empty chairs at a lot of these tables that are just waiting for people to raise their hand. It’s really that simple to get involved.”
As a businessperson, Resnick is well aware just how much committee and council members can shape policies that affect the business community.
“You can pick almost any issue that you want to focus on and you have the support not only from the bully pulpit that politics creates, but the financial and capital support to really make a change in your community,” he explains.
Industry-specific experience becomes a valuable tool for elected leaders, according to Resnick. It provides insight on how a particular policy will be interpreted in the marketplace.
“One of the best examples was the creation of a special entertainment license for businesses on State Street,” says Resnick. “The council spent hours debating the topic, which would add more live music options. Business-minded council members shared that the regulations were too onerous on potential venues. After hours of debate, the regulations remained. Two years elapsed and not a single entertainment license was issued.”
A similar situation occurred with Airbnb licenses. “The council failed to weigh the needs of an entrepreneurial business community in passing an overly restrictive version of the ordinance,” notes Resnick. “Still to this day most Airbnb owners don’t comply with the law. It became a major debate over the understanding of where the hoteliers’ interest may lie versus what it means for entrepreneurs in the city who might be traveling. There were a number of people sharing ideas and visions and if we had more entrepreneurs on the council I’m sure the outcome would have been different.”
Resnick says during his four years on the Common Council there were a host of issues, including liquor licenses, building tenant issues, permits for all sorts of buildings and density conflicts, where having more business voices involved could have shifted outcomes.
Often, it’s not even necessarily having someone who’s a business owner or executive involved, but simply someone who has an understanding of how economies work, agree Resnick and Little.
“There were at least a few votes — often split 11–9 — where the potential of additional tax base could have outweighed other concerns,” says Resnick. “Tax base is crucial to bring necessary city services. Just understanding many of the benefits and social services that we pay for and embrace are generated by taxation — and how that economic metric works in city governance — is quite significant.”
At times, Resnick notes council members can also demand too much of a building developer, to a breaking point where a new building is no longer economically viable. “A business background allowed me to better understand opposing viewpoints and draw the line in the sand of what was acceptable regulation. All in all, I believe my business experience made me a more fair elected leader.”
Resnick also notes his business background gave him an appreciation for the city to live up to its commitments and treat applicants on land use fairly, particularly on controversial TIF projects. “I realized that millions of dollars were being spent by individuals who were reading financial statements for the first time. Sure, city staff is there to help, but it doesn’t replace the knowledge created by practical experiences.
“Business experience also helps you create fair regulations,” Resnick adds. “There were numerous times on the city’s Plan Commission where a developer would fight against reasonable requests made by the neighborhood or city. [I believe] my business background allowed for a more balanced decision.”
Resnick notes there were victories for the business community during his time on the council. Alders updated the Downtown Comprehensive Plan and required neighborhood plans to include economic business statements, making it easier for agreed-upon projects to be approved. They eliminated the downtown Alcohol Licensing Density Ordinance, which got rid of burdensome regulations. Resnick spearheaded the creation of a women and minority entrepreneurial fund, now called the Evergreen Fund, to provide funding for new businesses looking to open. There were also numerous businesses that were approved through the zoning process that are now thriving operations.
In addition to having the ability to impact and shape policies and regulations to affect business interests in the community, both Little and Resnick say there are plum benefits for business people who get more civically engaged.
“When we talk to people who are interested in getting more involved, certainly it can be personally fulfilling and good for our community,” says Little, “but it also can be good for you professionally, with all the contacts and people you interact with.
“We certainly have seen a lot of examples of that in the past,” Little continues. “I think there’s been improvement locally. We created an entity within the chamber called the Small Business Advisory Council back in 2004. At that time one of the reasons why that group was created was because there were so many local proposals that had really good intentions but also very harmful impacts, particularly for small businesses.
“We also partner on initiatives like Leadership Greater Madison to expose people in the business community to the many ways that you give back and help shape our community. We want those pipelines and resources for people who might have had an interest in the past but don’t know how to really get started.”
According to Resnick, civic involvement engages participants in more than their own silos, and that assists businesses anywhere.
“While on the Council I had the great experiences of meeting people from the nonprofit sector, from the for-profit sector, from education and government, as well as business, and you can really shed those silos and understand more how your business works in the greater ecosystem,” explains Resnick. “Finding out what your impact may be to a local restaurant that you may not realize your employees go to, how one decision may have a cascading effect to many others, or just the benefits of creating a more diverse business, these are all concepts that are regularly discussed inside that civic conversation that can reap rewards to businesses.”
According to Little, the landscape is already improving for business involvement in local politics. “You’re seeing people who serve on the Council, and entrepreneurs who have run for higher office, as well. That’s a really positive thing and I think we’ve seen a lot of accomplishments over the past decade with improvements to the development process and improvements to the zoning code, and creating a robust economic development strategy for the city. These things weren’t done 20 years ago so it’s great to see a lot of momentum and support and involvement now at the local level.”
Little notes it’s not just Madison. As Dane County continues to grow there’s an even greater need for service in all of the area communities.
“I sincerely loved every day that I served on the Council,” Resnick adds. “When you’re working with city government, in particular, you have a true opportunity to change the world that’s around you.”
Serving on a Madison city committee is as easy as 1-2-3
According to the Madison Common Council website, committees, commissions, and boards play a significant role in helping city staff, the Council, and the mayor make decisions that affect the lives of Madison residents.
The city of Madison values broad participation in these bodies and highly encourages people of color, persons with disabilities, and members of other traditionally underrepresented groups to apply. Committee positions are open to city of Madison residents.
Those interested in serving on a city committee should follow these three steps:
1. View the listing of boards, commissions, and committees at madison.legistar.com/Departments.aspx to look up the current vacancies.
2. Select committees you would like to serve on. (Please check each committee’s meeting schedule to ensure you would be able to attend.)
3. Complete the application (MS Word) and email to the mayor’s office. Then electronically submit your statement of interests form.
It’s that easy. Once you’ve submitted your completed application, it will remain on file in the mayor’s office and, as vacancies occur in your areas of interest, your application will be reviewed.
It’s not just business people whose voices are being sought by local governments.
The Dane County Youth Governance Program (DCYGP) provides area high school students with real-life experience working in local government. The program allows youth to serve on a standing county committee while developing life skills and youth-adult partnerships.
Nominations for the 2017–2018 term closed on Feb. 10, but the process will resume again early next year. Students can be nominated by a teacher or another adult and must be Dane County residents in grades 9–12.
Launched in 2012, the DCYGP was modeled after a similar effort in Kenosha County. More than 60 Dane County students have participated in the program to date, which is facilitated by UW–Extension.
Student participants are paired with a county board member and serve on regular committees for a one-year term. While youth members have a non-binding advisory vote, they are provided the same opportunities for committee participation and involvement as elected county supervisors.
Students of any background are encouraged to apply, and the program is particularly suited to youth who are interested in business, government, or law.
More information on the Dane County Youth Governance Program can be found online at fyi.uwex.edu/youthgovernanceprogram.
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