Monday, April 11, 2011

Your Very Own Crosswalk: Stepping Through the Politics

As promised, a continuation of last week's guide to gaining a marked crossing in your neighborhood.

Step 6: How do I cut the red tape?
Remember how I said you had other options if you weren't getting anywhere with the local bureaucrats? Here's where the politics come in.

An important thing to understand is that while theoretically government employees are there to serve members of the public like you, it's the politicians who are their real bosses.Often a local traffic engineer will politely listen to your crosswalk request...and then just as politely blow you off for the next three months (or years). However, if that same request comes from a councilmember's office, it's almost guaranteed to get some immediate attention.



The trick here is for you to gain the ear of the politician, which is easier to do than you might think. Elected officials keep their jobs by demonstrating that they're responsive to their constituents, so it behooves them to pay attention to what you have to say. (Just remember my tips from Step 1 on being polite--and sane. The same rules apply here.)

Your approach for this step will vary depending on the type of jurisdiction (state or local) you are approaching, as well as its size. For highways, you'll need to contact your state representative(s). Most will have a local office, with contact info available in the phone book and online. If you have a personal relationship or connection to your congressmember, you can try to speak with him or her directly. For the rest of us, begin with the staff--they're usually the ones making the policy calls anyway (what, you thought the politicians did all that work? When would they ever find time for the photo ops?). Elected officials' websites typically have a page devoted to their staff that outlines each person's policy duties. Look for the staff person who represents your area, or the one who focuses on transportation and land use issues.

The process is the same for local roadways. Most elected officials in large cities and counties have paid staff who are there to help people like you with specific questions and requests. Again, the website will usually tell you which staff person covers transportation issues. In a smaller jurisdiction politicians often don't have paid staff, so you'll need to contact the elected official directly.

Phone calls are typically your best choice, although some people prefer email. In either case, you should keep your discussion brief and to the point--but it's okay to be a little passionate (politicos like that kind of thing). Explain what you're trying to accomplish, why you believe it's important to the community, and what help you'd like from the politician's office. If you've gathered any compelling data, drop a few of the most exciting/horrifying/intriguing statistics.

When talking with an elected official or their staff, it's helpful to mention any community support you've gathered for your crosswalk. More on that tomorrow in Step 7.

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