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How to Make a Difference.

If you are here, we assume you really care about San Angelo and the issues that confront us. We are coming on to an unusually important time in the city's governance. I hope in this essay to make clear that a small voice from nowhere really can make a difference, if one is willing to make the effort.

We will, in the next year, decide where we go on items ranging from the next city manager, to a huge investment in water supply. The vote to renew the half cent sales tax has extended an Economic Development Corp. and board that will be in charge of a nest egg of roughly $100 million over the next twenty years, dollars that we all have an interest in seeing as well spent.

Understand that the extension of the half cent tax is far more than a renewal of what has been. In many ways it is a whole new creature, and legally speaking, a work in progress. We can help determine the course of this spending in the next couple of years.

While we opposed the renewal of this tax, we accept that reality and only hope it is well used. We accept as given that all parties acted honorably and everyone wishes San Angelo well, but it is that tricky definition of "well" we keep tripping over.

This essay is about process, not issues, kind of a real world PoliSci 101 based purely on experience and not inconvenienced by philosophy.

Research and then research some more. This rule is critical to credibility, and it is not that hard anymore. As an example, I can, and have, brought up online Ohio election statutes at 3:00 AM sitting in my bathrobe and slippers. Fact check consistently and even the opposition will take for granted you are not blowing smoke. Never use the terms “they say” or “everyone knows”, these are red flags for lack of substance. “They said” that “everyone knows” the Earth was flat and the sun and stars revolved about us. Be prepared to cite reference.

Try to talk to the right people. You can have a beautifully built case, but if the people actually casting the vote have not heard it, nothing else matters. The voter registration card will give you district # for city council, school board, U. S. Congressional, etc. Don't waste your energy telling a Congressman about a city ordinance, or for that matter, telling the councilman across town your troubles instead of the one who represents you.

If possible, physically show up at meetings. With a few exceptions, governmental deliberations are open to the public, and like it or not they have to at least pretend to listen to you. Beefing about a decision after the fact can work, but it is much easier to derail the train aforehand than to try to put it back on the right track. I have gotten a ton of free ink in the paper simply by virtue of being the only member of the “public” present, everybody else in the room is either officeholder or press.

This last word, “press” is key. Be they from print, radio, or TV, the reporters are there because they have to be. Boss told them this was part of the beat they cover. Forget about the “bias” question, even if they are biased personally, their primary job is to fill the particular medium they work for with something the reader/listener will pay attention to. I am not Al Sharpton, I do not encourage you to manufacture strife without cause, and above all, don't waste their time with insupportable, and therefore unusable, supposition and conspiracy theory. Work with these people, give them respect and something they can fill column inches with, and you will find they will return your call when you want them. Play by the rules, and they are specific. Say you have something you are pretty sure of, but you don't actually have the smoking gun in your mitt, if it is worth mentioning at all say that, the term is “off the record” or “background”. Don't overuse this, but sometimes you can point a reporter in the direction of a story he has more access to than you would.

The relationship between reporters and activists is symbiotic. You want the coverage they can give you, they need the grist for the mill you might be able to give them. Try to remember, the topic you are focused on 24/7 is one of several balls the reporter is juggling at a given moment.

Much the same applies to the relations between you and your representative. He also has more on his plate than your issue. Timing is very important here. For example, water projects are going to be very important in the next year, but nobody is drawing lines in the sand yet. The city has three major studies in progress, and there is not much point in expending ammo until the target is well defined. Whichever solution, or combination of solutions, you lean towards, hold off until the information is in. For one thing, the data might even change your mind. For another, it is not advisable to preemptively make enemies before you are certain they actully are on the “other” side.

If at all possible, avoid the personal. Argue facts, positions, strategy, whatever, but do not get into personalities. The fellow you may be strongly tempted to call a liar and a thief today may turn out to be the crucial vote you need to court on another issue next year. Disagreement comes with the territory, conducted civilly it is so much water off a duck's back. Do not get into personalities and name calling, it will come back to haunt you when your cause least needs it. When the temptation gets too strong, step back, take a deep breath, and think on it some more, this is almost never a good move.

Example from my experience is instructive. Several years ago, council voted to purchase the Hemphill-Wells building and did so on short notice, little consideration, had to have it, urgent emergency. I was among several people opposed and asking for further study, but the mayor had the votes, and it proceeded in near record time.

I let myself be talked into joining a recall effort aimed at the council members who approved it. Politically, the worst move I ever made. On the merits of the case, we were absolutely correct, the city used our money to buy an asbestos plagued white elephant we still don't know what to do with, and may or may not ever find a use for. The point is, the recall effort was an over-the-top, heat of the moment reaction. Instead of making the approving council members look bad, it played out in the press as making us look silly, and honestly, deservedly so. As easy as it is to see now, at the time I allowed myself to get swept up in a cause driven more by emotion than careful thought. It cost years of political credibility on our side, and turned what should have been an embarrassment for the council members into metaphorical martyrdom.

This brings up the next rule: don't give up the ship. Even without egregious errors such as the recall, nobody wins them all. Excepting possibly Bob Shrum, who banked eight figures for managing Kerry to a loss, making Shrum's major league record 0 and 7. More important than a single issue or race, is keeping one's credibility, so long as that is intact, you can still come out of the corner for the next round. Not saying you should try for the Harold Stassen Award, but do not be easily discouraged. At whatever level, this is the Great Game, and just by playing you exercise more clout than the average bear.

In this life, there are sheep and there are shepherds (or as our webmaster reminded me wolves, but that is another level of play. See Bob Shrum, above.) It truly does not take much more than time, effort, some wit, and considering some elected officials, not a preponderance of the latter, to become a shepherd. Your choice, you can sit home, grind your teeth and gripe at your spouse, or speak up and become a player. Come on in, lots of room and the water's fine. Compared to all too many countries where you have to literally play Bet-Your-Life to be heard, this is truly an open country.

Something we hope to provide on this site is a guide, between links and local news, a convenient source of the tools, the information one needs to learn about the issues affecting us all. We have our individual political preferences, but we really will try to transcend party politics. The contributors here range from Democrat to Republican to Libertarian, and we are dedicated to the ideal of being open and useful to anyone of any persuasion. City races in fact are by Charter and Constitution, nonpartisan.

I, for one, encourage anyone, whatever party, to join in the never-ending debate, stand up and be counted. The open, honest discourse of competing ideas is a blessing not to be lightly passed up. We hope to hear from you.

Jim Ryan