Sometimes we learn best from our failures.
I often tell people that I am “made of mistakes.” This is the story of a big one.
When I was an economic development professional in Ritchie County a number of years ago, I was asked by the Ritchie County Commission to help craft an ordinance to help them deal with abandoned and dilapidated buildings.
These problem properties were becoming increasingly common in the county and the commissioners frequently faced complaints from neighbors and community members who wanted them to do something about it.
And so I convened a team of folks I thought might have a dog in the fight – representatives of the county commission, town councils, solid waste authority, Farm Bureau, Family Resource Network, etc etc.
We spent more than a year and a half crafting what we thought was a very conservative ordinance, requiring that the property be abandoned for at least two years, and that the property pose a clear health and safety threat. All farm structures were exempt, with a multi-step process to protect property owners from any surprises and to give them an extended period to respond.
In short, we thought the ordinance was limited and careful enough that it wouldn’t freak anyone out.
Finally, the County Commission unveiled the ordinance for its first reading. Because the agenda was posted at the courthouse and in the newspapers, a couple dozen curious citizens attended.
And then came the second reading.
People started showing up long before the hearing. Soon there was a line out the doors of the courthouse. The Commissioners had to move the hearing to a larger room on the second floor courtroom. By the time the hearing began, close to 280 people had shown up, the largest crowd gathered there since a sensational murder trial in the early 1900s.
And they were ticked off. They accused the Ritchie County Commission of plotting to throw little old ladies out of their homes, of requiring homeowners to have their paint colors approved, of undermining the word of God.
The three County Commissioners were, at least figuratively, curled in the fetal position under their table. It will probably be decades before any county commission in Ritchie County will consider any abandoned property ordinances.
What the heck went wrong?
With the benefit of hindsight and years of experience since, here are my takeaways:
- There was no public notification of the meetings, and citizens had no way to participate in the conversation.
- Inviting selected organizations does not substitute for broad civic engagement.
- The contents of the ordinance should have been clearly and simply described, and aggressively disseminated, prior to the hearings.
- Potential opposition should be identified and engaged in the process in order to head off misunderstandings.
- You must develop and mobilize an advocacy base for the action being taken. If you can’t do this, perhaps the action shouldn’t be taken.
In short, when it comes to community engagement on virtually any issue, more is always better than less.