Saturday, December 8, 2018

Campaign Communications in the Age of Social Media




Image result for political scandal

In the old days, it was uncommon for a scandal to hit an organization or for a rumor to circulate which would cause problems. It was quite an event when such a thing would happen, but something has changed in the broader culture, and now scandals break on any day that ends in Y. Social media has democratized information and ideas and the concept of "my opinion is as good as your facts," is pervading people's thinking.

In 2018, I have worked on campaigns to counter erroneous information or witnessed misinformation campaigns in environments as diverse as local politics, geek conventions, and community businesses. Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." The best way to combat bad information is good information, but that can be a challenge in a world where people doubt authority, think the Earth is flat, and believe vaccines are dangerous.

Throughout this year, I have worked with a number of re-information campaigns to save organizations and to fight for good electoral causes, and there is quite a bit to be learned about the new social media landscape. Below are some simple tips for community leaders, elected officials, and business people who may find themselves dealing with misinformation online or even in the middle of a firestorm themselves.

In this article, we discuss some specific concepts, but the most important strategic principles are those such as knowing your goals, rallying your supporters, taking the high ground, and learning from your opponents.
Image result for political scandal
If you have done something immoral or illegal and scandal
surrounds you, then you are laying in the bed you made.
Don't Be An Asshole
If you have actually done something wrong and the lid of the cookie jar finally smashed down on your hand, this article is not for you. If you are in the middle of a firestorm because you have committed a crime or conducted yourself in an immoral way, then the truth will not set you free, and you do not deserve it to. All of my advice has to do with propagating the truth to combat rumor and falsehood. If rumor and falsehood is your shield, you will more likely find me on the other side of the issue from you.

What is the litmus test for if you are on the right side or not? It is this: let us imagine that you have a magic wand that allows everyone in the public to know everything you know. By waving this wand, they learn the facts of the situation, the background, the extenuating circumstances, the nuances, everything. If that would cause them to support your side, then I can help you. If it would cause them to condemn you, then I cannot help you. The only right thing to do is to confess, apologize, and accept the consequences of your actions.

So what sort of situations am I talking about?

In November, Groton, CT was considering a charter revision. I discussed some of the issues with that in this blog, which centered around the fact that the document itself was catastrophically flawed. The campaign to oppose it was not about taxes or government authority or anything else. It was about the fact that the document proposed was written incorrectly and would not function. The more people we could explain this basic truth to, the more who would vote against it, and ultimately we were successful. The referendum failed in 7 out of 7 districts.

Right now, a business in Westerly is the center of a controversy. Amigos Taqueria Y Tequila employees wore T-shirts on election day that said "86 45". 86 refers to the restaurant lingo of throwing something out when it is rotten or unsatisfactory, and 45 refers to President Donald Trump, 45th president of the United States. The expression is commonly used among some Trump opponents and is generally understood to indicate impeachment. However, State Senator Morgan interpreted the shirts another way. She decided that they were advocating assassination of President Trump, and the rallied her supporters to boycott the restaurant. Since then, the restaurant has faced harassing and racist messages on the phone, email, and Facebook.

A small town, that I'll refer to as Smallville, needs a new public safety building. The police are in what was supposed to be a temporary building and have been for many more years than was intended. A good plan is on the table to construct a proper building that will serve all of the town's public safety needs both today and in the future, but false information is being circulated suggesting that the current building was poorly maintained, that the new building is not needed, and that the new building is being funded improperly. None of these things are true, but collectively, they may cause the town to reject the bonding that will give the town the facility it needs. (This example is actually an amalgam of a couple of cases, so don't try to figure out what real town Smallville is.)

These are just three examples of the kind of situations I will be discussing. You are about to learn some strategies that are very effective in dealing with and defusing these situations. Should you find yourself in such a situation and need additional assistance or consultation, I encourage you to reach out to me by email.

How many people react to
first learning about the issue.
Put Yourself in the Shoes of the Public
If you are in a campaign to correct misinformation, you must first know what you are trying to do. You audience is not your opponents, it is the public. Your opponents are the ones who will be commenting on your posts and writing letters to the editor, but the silent public are the ones who are taking it all in and drawing conclusions. They probably came to this issue knowing little or nothing about it, and they are probably receiving this information out of order in a confusing jumble.

It is easy to forget, knowing all the background that you know, being as engaged as you are, that the audience you are trying to reach may know nothing at all about this situation, or, worse, their initial information may be incorrect.

Lacking information, people will often fill in the gaps with information from unrelated events. When an individual is accused of sexual misconduct, the public may fill in what they don't know from other high profile situations. In a situation like Smallville's public safety building, people who know nothing may fill in the void with a story from another town that wasted taxpayer money on a crappy building.

Before you can inform, you need to understand how they are already misinformed. In a situation with an active misinformation campaign, it is even more difficult because you are starting out behind. The misinformation campaign has already started getting their message out before you have acted, and you, having lost the initiative, are forced to react.

Know Your Goal
This is not your goal.
Source: https://xkcd.com/386/
It is very easy in the instant gratification mindset of social media to think that your goal is to be right
and prove your opponent wrong. This is rarely your goal, and will often work against your interests.

What is your goal? Often in politics, due to the fact that it plays out in votes, it is obvious such as "get the referendum to pass." Other times it may be something else such as preventing an event from being cancelled or maintaining solvency of an organization. Sometimes your goal presents itself in terms of the opponent's goal: make the campaign of harassment stop.

Choosing the correct goal is a very important strategic step. If you have no goal, then you have no chance to achieve it. You opponent certainly does have a goal, and if you have none, they will invariably achieve theirs.

In the case of Amigos that I mentioned above, they have a choice of goals to consider. They can choose a passive goal: make this controversy die down and return to simply being a successful restaurant. They could also choose an aggressive goal: discredit Senator Morgan, cause her to lose her next election, and build the business by building strong ties to liberal groups and customers.

Two very different goals which would suggest two very different game plans. Whichever goal they choose, the steps and tactics that follow would be very effective, but the way they would implement them would be different.

Whatever your goal is, know what it is. When we campaigned against the Charter Revision in Groton, we knew that our goal was winning the vote. It was not to discredit our opponents or to be "right." In fact, we had no desire to discredit or alienate our opponents, many of whom were friends and members of the community that we would work with on the same side on other issues. Our opponents wanted what was best for the town just like we did, but the information that drove their choices was inaccurate. By focusing on the goal, we were able to achieve it most effectively and with minimal acrimony.

When I was on the team working to save Wicked Faire, our goal was to make sure that Wicked Faire ran, preserving the investment of our attendees and vendors who had put thousands of dollars into it which they would not have gotten back. The goal was precise. We were not trying to save the company that ran Wicked Faire. We were only trying to save the event. We remained focused on the goal, and, through hard work and good discipline, the event was highly successful. In the efforts that followed, goals became unclear, discipline was lost, we failed to follow almost every tactic discussed below, and the results were predictably catastrophic.

Prevent Misinformation By Keeping Information Flowing
This advice is primarily for elected leaders dealing with political issues, but you may find it relevant for other situations as well.

The best way to prevent a misinformation campaign from taking root is to be proactive in pushing out correct information. If you are an elected leader of any kind, whether it's mayor, first selectman, or even non-profit leader, you should have a blog or newsletter or some other platform from which you can regularly communicate with your constituents. Through this platform, you should be sharing not only what is happening now, but early stage concepts for what may happen in the future. At the very least, with a situation like Smallville's public safety building, people should be informed that there is a problem which must eventually be solved, so that when they hear that millions of dollars are needed for a solution, their reaction is "finally we're doing something about this," and not "wait, what do you need all this money for all of a sudden?"

Many elected officials have rules governing what they can and cannot say regarding upcoming referendums, but for the most part that only applies once a referendum is on the calendar. The rules are generally not intended to prevent leaders from sharing background information with constituents, and, in fact, they are encouraged to do so.

Get Your Team on the Same Page
The most important thing when you are actually telling the truth is to sound like you are telling the truth. With organized misinformation campaigns, there is a certain phenomenon which occurs that causes those seeking to misinform to sound more truthful than those who are actually telling the truth. It has to do with organization. Those who are organized to misinform have taken the time to get their whole team on the same page. Every detail aligns and checks out against anything that anyone else would say. People are programmed to believe that if they hear something from multiple sources, it must be true, and misinformation campaigns take advantage of this to transmit their message from multiple sources.

People who tell the truth, on the other hand, do not take the time to coordinate their stories. Why would they? Their story is the truth. However, everyone has their own perception, so there will be subtle differences between what each person says. Some supporters may be honestly mistaken in their facts. Some supporters may have different priorities as to what is most important.

In the old days, scandals were handled through press releases, press conferences, interviews with key people. Now they play out through social media where anyone with a smartphone can get into the fray. This means that your opponent's crackpot ideas sound just as legitimate as your properly researched ideas (we'll discuss that in a moment), and it also means that anyone from your side has the same megaphone.
This is the image of a municipal executive. Arguing in social
media comments contradicts that image.
Speak From Authority
I want you to think about movies that have a character of The Mayor. The archetypal Mayor is a person of great esteem and respect. He sits behind his large wooden desk and leads the people of the City. Whether it is a good guy or a bad guy, there is prestige to the office. There is respect.

Most importantly, The Mayor does not argue with people in comments.

I'm going to repeat that, and you may wish to print it out and put it on your wall.

The Mayor does not argue in the Comments

The archetypal Mayor gives speeches. He gives interviews. He writes a letter to his constituents. He speaks in platforms that respect the authority of his office.

Whatever your position, be like The Mayor.

What do you do if you are not in a high enough position to get people to come to your speeches or be interviewed in the paper on this issue? Create your own podium. The easiest way is to have a blog. If you find yourself embroiled in an ad hoc misinformation campaign, as opposed to a political one, at least create a web site with Q&A information that directly addresses the false ideas with truthful ones.

This serves a number of purposes.

First, it gives your supporters the information resources to support you. There are likely many out there who would like to argue on your behalf, but without facts to back them up, they'd be torn apart by the other side that has created their own easy reference material. This gets your team on the same page. They can simply link to your articles when refuting inaccurate information.

Second, the comment section is very egalitarian. Everyone is equal. The Mayor and the nutball both just sound like "people with opinions" in the comment sections, and that is not a good situation for you if you are The Mayor whose information is backed up by research, facts, and history, but it's great if you are the nutball.

Third, every comment you make gives you the opportunity to make a mistake. The best, most informational comment will be seen by a handful of people who happen to look at that sub-thread. On the other hand, should you make a mistake, lose your temper, or otherwise speak poorly, the comment can be screen-captured and shared broadly. 

There is great downside and little upside, and that is why The Mayor does not argue in the comments.

You Can Still Engage
Many reading this may enjoy a role of being among the people. You don't want to separate yourself from your constituents. You are one of them, and you want to connect with them, and you absolutely should. If you see a comment you wish to engage with, you can do so like this.
I understand what you are trying to say, but I believe you will find that your concerns have been addressed in this article on my blog where I talk about that very thing. I hope you find this helpful.
All the actual arguments are contained in your blog which you have written with due consideration, had proof read by friends and supporters, and constructed a well thought out argument. The in line comment is simply a friendly rejoinder to consider the facts.

Remember that your audience is not those who disagree with you, it's those who do not know yet.

Image result for cheering crowd rally -trumpRally Your Supporters
If you are important enough to be dealing with the kind of challenges that we're talking about here, then you have supporters. If you are an elected official, you have people who helped you get into office, as well as the direct stakeholders in the particular issue. If you are business owner who is under reputational assault, then you hopefully have customers who are fans and support your good work.

When the slings and arrows start flying out of the screen, it can be difficult to remember that you have friends. Often, people will want to keep their heads down so they don't get lopped off. You or your campaign is a target of verbal abuse, and anyone who steps up to support you will draw fire on themselves.

You may have many friends and supporters out there, but they may not be speaking up because they don't want to get involved. They also may not be speaking up because they do not know what to say. You probably have friends who are more than willing to come out swinging for you, but they know that to do so without information will do more harm than good.

This is why it is so important to have all of your facts and details laid out in one easy-to-find place. This empowers your supporters to jump in on your behalf supported by reliable information. This lets the public (remember, they are the audience) see that there are many who support you.

It also does one other thing, the importance of which cannot be overstated. It lets you see that you have have friends. Your opponents are loud, angry, constant, and appear numerous (although usually they are not nearly as numerous as you think), and it is easy to become exhausted and even depressed. Your friends and supports taking a stand with you can be a tonic to the spirit to keep you going.

Just because you can get constant access to the Internet
does not mean that it is beneficial to have constant
access to the Internet.
Get Off Your Phone
Smartphones are great little conveniences. They give us the ability to instantly do hundreds of mediocre things with little effort or thought.

If you are fighting a campaign of misinformation, you need to be better than mediocre.

The natural instinct is to believe that this campaign is unfolding second by second, moment by moment. Every set of eyes that see that comment is one person that may be swayed to the other side. Instant action and constant vigilance are required! In some cases this is true, but very, very few. Frankly, your issue is probably not important enough to most people to earn their constant attention. In most situations you are likely to encounter, developments occur in hours, not seconds.

Do not use your smartphone to monitor the situation. In fact, when I have been working on some of these campaigns, I removed the Facebook app from my phone to remove the temptation. Once you see a comment, post, or article that is wrong, offensive, or simply calls for a response, it is very difficult to put it out of your mind until you have done something about it. It will distract you, eat at you, wear you out and exhaust you.

Or, worse, you'll answer it. Now you're not only arguing in the comments, but you're doing it from a position of disadvantage on a difficult to use keyboard in a buggy app. You are not crafting a clever message. You're puking some words back. This is how we get errors that are screen-captured and shared.

You avoid this by simply not looking at the social media platforms where the conflict is occurring unless you are at your computer in a proper environment to have time to respond appropriately. Arrange your schedule to give you a few times throughout the day to sit in front of your computer, ideally with some of your team with you, to take stock of the situation, compose articles, and strategize responses.

The Mayor does not argue in the comments. If something does call for a response, link to an appropriate article from your web site or blog. If you do not have an appropriate article, write one and link to it. It provides a greater sense of authority, and it prevents having to answer the same point over and over and over.

Learn From Your Opponents
You may be very good at leading your town or business or organization or event, and chances are that you know far better than your opponents in knowing how to do these things, which is why your information is more accurate than theirs. They, however, are probably better at information and misinformation campaigns than you. This is because most of your focus is on leading whatever you lead, and most of their focus is on opposing you doing so.

They are spending their time and energy to find new and exciting ways to spread their message, inaccurate as it may be. There is a good chance that they are using better tactics than you are. Why take all the time and energy to develop new tactics when they have already invested? Watch what your opponents are doing, and if a tactic is effective, copy it.

I learned about the importance of a central source of information for supporters to draw from when it was used against a campaign to devastating effect. In fact, much of what I have learned is gleaned from tactics I have witnessed to be effective from the other side of the table.

When people have honest disagreements on policy, a great
deal of common ground can be found by being willing
to offer the hand of friendship.
Know the Difference Between Opponents and Enemies
An opponent is someone who disagrees with you on an issue and is working against you based on that disagreement. An enemy is someone who wants to see you defeated.

The difference is crucial, and often confused largely due to the state of national politics. When President Obama was in office, some conservatives would oppose anything he said or did simply because it was him. There was a joke that people wanted to see Obama declare that you should not eat yellow snow because some conservative Senators would insist on eating yellow snow on the Senate floor and declare it healthy just to prove him wrong.

Of course, it goes both ways. There are liberals who oppose anything President Trump says or does simply because it is Trump. When Justice Kavanaugh was announced, there was an organization that issued a press release by accident in which they declared their opposition to Trump's nomination of [blank], showing that they were ready to oppose any candidate with the same argument.

In both examples, we are talking about enemies. No amount of facts or convincing or reconciliation will bring them into agreement.

Fortunately, in many cases, especially in local affairs, you are dealing with opponents more than enemies, and an opponent may be willing to back down in the face of new information. In the Charter Revision campaign, there were many people who were advocating a yes vote because they liked the idea of a budget referendum. However, many of those opponents stopped their advocacy when it was explained to them that a loophole in the document would actually nullify the power of the referendum.

It is crucial to present this information to them in a non-confrontational, informative manner. No one changes their mind when being badgered and berated, but if they are approached with respect and an opportunity to save face, good results can be achieved.

When possible, you should always try to get a face to face meeting with the loudest voices on the other side. In the best case scenario, you could find common ground that could allow for a mutually beneficial compromise. More likely, you might be able to show them information which could allow them to see where they are in error. At the very least, you will have a better understanding of their argument and why it is compelling to their audience. You might even discover something you didn't know, and improve your own knowledge of the situation.

Usually, the best result is their departure from the debate. Rare is the person who is willing to reverse a public position. They would be alienating their associates that they were campaigning alongside, and, unfortunately, in our modern ethos of "us and them," they would be thought of, not as intellectuals responding to new information, but as turncoats, traitors to their chosen cause. Unfortunate, but true. While few would publicly renounce their position, many people, when presented with information that shows that they were on the wrong side of the issue will at least relent in their active support for the issue.

Crisis and Campaign Communication in the Age of Social Media
Like many things in this fast changing and dynamic world, what I have written here may be out of date the moment I push the "publish" button. However, the concepts that underlie it are robust and adaptable. Know your goals, rally your supporters, take the high ground, learn from you opponents: these principles will serve you in 1918, 2018, or 2118.

Do you find yourself, or know someone, struggling with a communications crisis or social media firestorm? Reach out to me for a free consultation. I am always happy to use my experience to benefit those whom I can.

Fair warning though, I do not help those who create their own crises through immoral or illegal behavior.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Solution Oriented Mindset

I am presently working on a new book, tentatively named "Solve Any Problem." This is the first chapter on the Solution Oriented Mindset. I'm curious to get some feedback and suggestions for points I should be sure to address in the rest of the book.

Chapter 1. Solution Oriented Mindset

“Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right.”
-Henry Ford


 The first step to solving a problem is believing you can solve a problem. In fact, I would venture to say that as many as 90% of the problems in your life can be solved by what you will find in this very chapter.

 Among my many careers, I was a driving instructor for a number of years. One of the most important things that you teach in driving is to point your eyes where you want to go. Your hands follow your eyes. If you are skidding on the ice, you want to keep your eyes pointed down the road because that will give you the best chance to recover the vehicle. The tendency is to look at the thing you’re worried about: the guard rail, the other cars, etc, but if you do, that’s where you’ll go.

 With a problem it is the same way. The right thing to do is to fixate on the solution to the problem, the desired outcome. If you fixate on the problem, you’ll hit the problem, you’ll stay in the problem. The longer you live in the problem, the easier it will be to tell yourself that the problem is insoluble.

 Hopelessness is a very seductive state. Doing nothing is easy, and when there is no solution to a problem, then the right answer is to do nothing. Why waste energy fighting something that cannot be fixed? Why not just resign yourself to your fate and make the most of it?

 I’ll tell you why not. That form of resignation is the definition of depression.

There is a difference between resignation and acceptance. Resignation is defeat, embracing the negative. Acceptance is recognizing the negative, but embracing the positive. It can be understood in cinematic terms. When the hero sacrifices himself for the good of the many, standing tall on the bridge of the ship as it falls into the sun with inspiring music, he has weighed the choices and accepted his decision. He will live (or die) with the consequences.

Resignation, on the other hand, is living in an unacceptable situation, crushed by the failure to remedy it.

If you are poor because you have taken a vow of poverty or chosen to dedicate your life to your art with the recognition of the lack of financial opportunities, then the challenges that you encounter from a lack of money are a test of your faith that strengthens your spirit and will. It is the concept behind the deprivations of Lent. If you give up TV for Lent, then every time you walk by the TV, you are reminded of the strength of your faith and why you choose to deprive yourself. If you fast for a religious observance, each hunger pang reminds you of your love for God.

In these forms of acceptance, you would build your life to accommodate them. If you have chosen the life of a starving artist, then you will find inexpensive places to live, learn economical ways to feed yourself, find forms of fulfillment that don’t require money. In doing so, the deprivations of the wallet will not lead to a depression of the spirit.

On the other hand, if you are merely broke because there is too much month at the end of the money, and you have resigned yourself to the idea that you’re poor because your family has alway been poor and your friends are poor and that’s just the crappy hand you were dealt, then every deprivation will be another dagger into your spirit.

The person who has accepted poverty sees a social media post of friends at a fancy dinner and can feel happy for the friends, knowing that they themselves find their joy elsewhere. The person who is resigned to poverty sees the same post and can feel only envy and resentment.



In later chapters, we will discuss the importance of properly framing the problem for finding the solution. “I don’t have any money” is a statement, not an actionable problem. When I was a younger man, I owned a board and role playing game store which was the center of a beautiful and vibrant community. I had very little money, but I had accepted that fact and built my life to accommodate it. My lack of money rarely bothered me except when it affected what was truly important to me at the time which was my ability to build and maintain institutions which served our community.

Later in life, as a family man, not having money at certain times would become more of a problem in and unto itself because I had obligations to support my family which required money.

In that earlier phase, problems which seemed to be a lack of cash could be solved by reframing the situation, shifting or reducing expenditures. In the later phase, the problems of lack of money needed to be solved with finding more money because there were restrictions on how the situation could be restructured.



The opposite of being resigned to a problem is the faith that a solution always exists. The first step in this faith is to understand that the problem is rarely something as concrete as “I don’t have money” or “my company is failing.” Most problems can be broken down to some element of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

“I don’t have money” is most likely really a problem of safety as in “I need financial security,” or in more severe cases physiological as in “I need to be able to acquire food and shelter.”

Most people fixate on the problem. “I don’t have money.” What they should do is focus on the solution. “How can I acquire financial security?” When the problem is “I don’t have money,” then the only solution can be “get more money.” If the question is one of financial security, a panoply of other solutions come into view. They could find someone who is willing to provide room and board in exchange for being a governess or housekeeper. They could live in a cabin in the woods with no rent or electricity. They could work for a restaurant and get free meals. None of these would create more money, and some might even mean less, but that is not important because it would solve the real problem.

The important thing, regardless of the particular problem, is to first embrace the idea that there is a solution. You just have to find it.

Why do you search your house for your lost keys, but you don’t search your house for a pot of leprechaun gold? You believe that your lost keys are somewhere in your house. You do not believe there is a pot of gold in the house. Why would you waste time searching for something that does not exist.

It is the same way with solutions. Why would you search for a solution that you do not believe exists? When you are searching for your keys, you first search the obvious places: the counter, the couch, the mud room where you take off your boots, etc. Once the obvious places are exhausted you search the less obvious. Are they in the medicine cabinet? Did you put them in the freezer for some reason? The fireplace? The mulch around the bushes out front?

But you will only search the most unexpected locations if your faith that your keys are somewhere in your house is strong. If you are absolutely confident that you brought them into the house.

It is the same way with solutions. If you have a weak belief in a solution to your problem, then you will make a weak search for the solution. In the no money example, maybe you check the job listings once or twice, don’t see anything and give up. On the other hand, if you have an absolute confidence that there is a solution, then you will search high and low. You will never stop looking and trying and experimenting until you find that solution. You will research it. You will ask your friends. You will pray on it. You’ll never stop until you find it.

The best part is that, in many cases, this dedication to finding a solution can lead you to find one in less time than it would have taken to make a cursory search and give up. Why? If you are planning to give up, then you make a plodding and perfunctory search. You don’t try that hard. You have already decided to fail, which perversely means that success would mean you were wrong. On the other hand, if you have decided to succeed, you will seek the most aggressively effective solutions first.

Dave Durand, who has made a study of what he calls legacy achievers, says that one of the most powerful forces in the world is that of self justification. If you believe that you will fail, you want to justify that belief. You will want to justify your resignation. It’s not laziness, it’s prudence. Why waste energy on something that is doomed to fail? See, I tried this, that, and the other, and nothing worked. I put in an effort.



If you only learn one thing from this entire book, let it be the importance of a solution oriented mindset. If you believe that there is a solution, you will find it. You will find it because there is always a solution, so if you never stop looking, you’ll eventually find it. If you can embrace absolute confidence in the existence of a solution, you will eventually intuit everything else I can teach you about problem solving.

That doesn’t mean you should stop reading and figure everything out on your own. While you will intuit it all eventually, it is always more efficient to learn from the mistakes of others rather than making every single one yourself.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Gratitude in Difficult Times

Image may contain: 1 person, text that says "HAPPY THANKSGIVING"
This has been a very difficult year for me and my family. I have seen communities torn apart by people who placed their personal grudges, agendas, and insecurities above the good of the society of which they are a part. I have watched people we thought were friends turn against us. I have dealt with people whose word is worthless.

As we come to the close of such a year, it might be easy to say that it is not a time for gratitude but bitterness. The temptation to do so is quite strong. Too often, when there is bad and good together, it is too easy to fixate on the bad. To let the evil overshadow the good.

This year has seen a lot of destruction in our world, but looked at another way, we could call it creative destruction.

When those whom you believe are your friends turn on you, at first, you begin to doubt all of your friends. Who will turn next? Then you begin to doubt yourself. What did I do to drive them away? Then your true friends reveal themselves. Not necessarily in some great action, but simply in their continued presence. When the deceivers have all left, those who remain are the true friends, and there are many of them. So many.
The Groton Rotary club is a wonderful group of people, and
I am honored and humbled to have the opportunity to
share my time, energy, and resources with the great
projects they do for our community and the world.

During the darkest time, I had blocked or unfriended dozens of people on Facebook. I was fixated on what was lost until I noticed a curious thing. After so many had been purged from my connections, I looked at my list of friends and discovered that, not only was it not lower, it was in fact higher. Much higher. I have connected with hundreds of good people in the last year.

Furthermore, as the groups that we had built our lives around and contributed our support to proved to be rotten shells destined to
collapse, we found ourselves freed to find new communities, new groups, new good people to surround ourselves with, new true causes to give our support to.

From the first meeting I visited my new Toastmasters Club,
I treated as a member of the group, and I am deeply grateful
for their fast and sincere friendship.
As it turns out, they are not new. They have been here all along, but we had been dedicating our attention, our energy, our support elsewhere. Now, as things have become clearer, we have been able refocus our energy to places where it can do real good, where it will be appreciated, and where it will make us part of a community of good people who will make our lives richer for knowing them.

Some of the amazing local people I had the pleasure to work
with. Even the folks on the Yes side we're great people. We
may have disagreed, but we all agreed that we wanted what
was best for our town. It was refreshing for everyone to care
about the common good.
In the same way that you pull weeds from a garden to allow the beautiful flowers to grow, the trials and tribulations of 2018 have allowed us to weed out the places and people who sapped out energy and our strength and allowed us to grow and develop relationships with amazing, wonderful people who will make our lives so much richer.

I have so much to be grateful for. I am grateful for the wonderful community I have found at my church over the past year. I am grateful for the chance to become more involved in the good work of Rotary. I am grateful for the chance to have worked along so many of the best and brightest in local politics. I am grateful for the new friends I have met throughout this year.

My wonderful church family at Noank Baptist Church that I
have been blessed to become a part of this year. While I am
relatively new, they have welcomed me like a long lost
relative and I am eternally grateful.
So, I suppose I should also be grateful to one more group of people. I am grateful to the liars, the schemers, and the people with evil in their hearts who brought all this upon us. They allowed me to really appreciate all the good people who are around me. They allowed me to refocus my efforts onto communities that deserve the love of myself and my family. They have allowed me to find the flowers among the weeds.

Have a happy Thanksgiving, and take a moment between the turkey and the pie to be grateful for all the blessings that are around us.

P.S. I usually add the photos after I write an article. As I went to add the photos to this article, I realized that I didn't have room for all the wonderful groups. I am deeply thankful to the great folks at BVM that I work with, to various individuals I have met along the way, people in the fandom communities who are still doing the good work to bring fellowship and good times to those who wear the gears and dream of the rocket ships. I'm sure I'm leaving out someone, but, as A Halo Called Fred sings, "We Love You All!"

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Drink More Bad Coffee

What comes out of this is hot,
brown, caffeinated, and strong.
Today, I had the pleasure of volunteering with the wonderful people at my church as we hosted a fantastic Holiday Bazaar. I was helping out in the kitchen, and there was one of those coffee urns that you often find at church events. These coffee urns are excellent devices for creating coffee when quantity is paramount and quality is irrelevant. What comes out of it is a powerful concoction which is good for keeping you going, although there are differing opinions as to whether it is due to the caffeine or the bitterness.

As I tasted the distinctive flavor of urn coffee, I realized that I have very positive associations with bad coffee. Convention staff dens, all night game parties, intense campaigns, and other memorable events are often powered by the dark fuel that comes from these arcane machines.

Some of my best times have been working long and late running a convention or another event, working on an intense project with a team, or something else which brings people together, and the coffee urn has been a part of many such events.

The best times are naturally times spent with others, and the coffee urn, by its very nature, is a tool that only comes out for groups. Most people don't need a 55 cup coffee maker for personal home use.

So I suppose it makes sense that I would have such positive associations with the strong, bitter, slightly burned flavor of cheap beans brewed into a strong and bitter concoction.

As I drank the coffee, I came to realize that I should seek more opportunities to drink such bad coffee, because the bad coffee comes with good people, exciting times, and good causes.

I'm going to try to find some more places to drink bad coffee while doing good things.

At least it's not as bad as the pale
brown water that issues from this
machine.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Will Your Vote Count on the Budget Referendum?

In a recent article, I discussed some fundamental and serious flaws with the proposed charter for Groton, CT. Today, I'm going to explain how the referendum in the new charter does not actually give voters any control over the budget and can and will be completely ignored.

The proponents of this new charter believe that the budget referendum will somehow be the cure for every problem that Groton has. Groton certainly has it's challenges, and reasonable people can differ on the efficacy of a budget referendum to fix them, but to do that the referendum must have the power to control the budget, and due to a flaw in 9.12.6.6 of the proposed referendum, the referendum does not actually control the budget.

9.12.6.6 Interim Budget and Fixing the Tax Rate In case a Budget is not approved by June 30, the budget submitted by the Town Council per Section 9.10.3 shall be utilized as an interim budget until a new Budget is approved by referendum. Within three (3) business days after an interim budget is approved goes in to effect, the Town Council will set a mill rate that shall be sufficient, with the income from other sources, to meet the estimated expenses of the Town for the next fiscal year.

So there's an interim budget. That's a good solution to the budget chaos that neighboring towns have, right?

Well, yes, it does prevent budget chaos, but it also removes the teeth from the referendum. Let's look at an example.

Image result for useless
Whatever the charter was supposed to do, it doesn't do it.
Since the budget referendum must be held every two weeks after the initial vote fails, 9.12.6.6 effectively says that there can be up to three referendums before the interim budget takes effect.

Let us imagine that the Town Council puts up a budget of $45,000,000 for an initial vote. The referendum fails, and the Town Council makes a good faith effort to offer a new budget with deep cuts, this time $43,000,000. It fails as well. So, the Town Council makes a third effort with a $41,000,000 budget. A $4,000,000 cut means a lot of cuts in services, but the people are speaking and they are trying to listen.

The people vote no again. June 30th comes around and 9.12.6.6 comes into effect. The first, $45,000,000 budget goes into effect and the Town Council sets a mill rate accordingly.

If your car keeps breaking down, you fix the car.
You don't throw away your tool box.
The initial budget that the Town Council wanted is now in effect. Why would they ever put forth another budget for vote that was lower? If no budget ever passes, the $45,000,000 sticks, and the Town Council has all the power to determine what gets voted on.

After the Town Council offers $45,000,000 a couple more times, the referendum will either pass when people realize it is already in effect, or it will keep failing... until it passes because people realize it's already in effect.

The following year, there's no reason for the Council to mess around. They'll just put forward the budget they want in the first place, and it doesn't matter if it passes or fails because after three votes it goes into effect anyway.

Of course, this exercise in fake democracy costs taxpayers about $100,000 every year, or $400,000 over the course of a Town Council's four year term. That's the same amount it cost to get the Fitch Community Center up and running. That's a lot of money to waste to pretend the public can influence the budget.


Ultimately, the check of the RTM and it's reduction of 1-2% every year from the budget is gone. The Board of Finance is powerless. The referendum is easily ignored. In any system with no checks and balances in place, the natural result is budgets slowly but inexorably growing.

Spending money on a referendum that doesn't matter.
Yeah, it's kind of like that.
Whatever this new charter was intended to do, it doesn't do it. The people of Groton trade away their representation through the RTM for a vote in a referendum that ultimately doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if you like big government or small government, lower taxes or more services, there is no possible agenda you could have that is served by this poorly written and deeply flawed charter.

The only reasonable vote on the proposed Groton charter is NO.

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Christmas Tree Scenario


I have been writing a series of articles about the proposed charter revision for Groton, Connecticut. This article gives a good understanding to start from if you are not familiar with the issue.

One of the great promises of Groton's proposed Charter Revision is that of better control of the budget, but is that promise really true? I'd like to discuss what I call The Christmas Tree Scenario.

Let us imagine a town called Charter Town. Charter Town is a town of 40,000 people that operates under the Charter as proposed.

We have been assured that the public will have sufficient knowledge of the budget to make an informed decision, and we're accepting that assumption for this scenario. In fact, we're going to assume that the public is not only fully knowledgeable but that the people of Charter Town are magically able to understand the importance of every aspect of the budget and know the motivations of the Town Councilors.

The optimum budget for Charter Town this year is $100,000,000, and everyone would agree to that budget because everyone knows it's the right number.

But Councilor A would really like to see the town dock renovated, which will cost $110,000.

Councilor B is okay with that, as long as she can get a new sound system into the high school auditorium for $110,000.

Councilor C really wants to see another police officer hired, which will cost $110,000.

Etc. Etc. With all 9 Councilors each adding their own $110,000 addition.

We call this the Christmas Tree Scenario because in certain situations, everyone will want to hang their own ornament on the Christmas tree.

None of these little additions are inappropriate, and some would be nice to have, but they are also not necessary. They are what is often referred to at the Groton RTM as "nice to haves." But each little Nice to Have adds up. In this case, to a million dollars.

9 councilors, each adding their own small pet project add $1,000,000 to the budget, turning an optimum $100 million budget into a $101 million budget: a modest 1% increase.

The well informed and rational voters are faced with a choice. Should they approve this budget, recognizing that the small additional expenditures are actually nice to have and don't cost that much, or should they vote to fail the budget, incurring the additional expense and uncertainty of one or more potential revotes?

If Charter Town had a Representative Town Meeting reviewing the budget line by line, it could excise the unneeded line items and bring the budget down to the $100 million optimum budget, but having only a referendum, they can either say yes or no to the whole thing.

Knowing that $100 million is perfect and $101 million is only a tiny bit more, a rational electorate can be expected to approve such a budget.

Let us assume a 2% rate of inflation. In that case, next year's budget in Charter Town should be $102 million, but with last year's budget being $101 million, the budget with inflation is $103.02 million. More importantly, in the next cycle, everyone gets to hang an ornament on the budget tree again. We'll assume that they never add more than a million dollars of special projects.

So, what does that do after a decade?


Charter Town Budgets
YearOptimumActual
2020$100,000,000.00$101,000,000.00
2021$102,000,000.00$104,020,000.00
2022$104,040,000.00$107,100,400.00
2023$106,120,800.00$110,242,408.00
2024$108,243,216.00$113,447,256.16
2025$110,408,080.32$116,716,201.28
2026$112,616,241.93$120,050,525.31
2027$114,868,566.76$123,451,535.82
2028$117,165,938.10$126,920,566.53
2029$119,509,256.86$130,458,977.86
2030$121,899,442.00$134,068,157.42

By 2030, Charter Town's budget is $12,168,715.42 higher than it would have been with a line item budget process, or 10%. By 2065, it's 30% higher than it should have been. All because of a tiny increase of less than one percent of great projects that are simply a little more than is strictly necessary.


A complaint of Groton's RTM is that it only trims a percentage point or two off of the budget. If Charter Town had an RTM that trimmed 1% from their budget, their taxes would be 10% lower in ten years.

But the Voters Won't Do That
Perhaps you believe that the voters in Groton are more like the voters in another very similar town called Budget Town. They also have 40,000 residents and they also follow our proposed charter. The difference is that their voters are strict. They will have none of this one percent shenanigans. To the Town Council they say, "You trim the fat or we vote your budget down. We have the ultimate power here!"

After all, the voters hold the final authority through the budget referendum... or do they.

What happens if the voters fail the budget? In the new proposed charter...

9.12.6 Should either budget fail to be approved by a majority of those voting thereon, the Council shall, within seven days after a failed referendum, recommend a revised budget for each rejected budget, which may be less or greater than the failed budget, as the Council shall deem appropriate based on the results of the referendum.

I bolded a key word in that section. It says "may" not "shall." That means that they Council can return the same budget in the next referendum, as Stonington did recently when they put up a budget that was rejected and then put up the same budget which was accepted.

But what happens if the budget fails three times?

9.12.6.6 Interim Budget and Fixing the Tax Rate In case a Budget is not approved by June 30, the budget submitted by the Town Council per Section 9.10.3 shall be utilized as an interim budget until a new Budget is approved by referendum. Within three (3) business days after an interim budget is approved goes in to effect, the Town Council will set a mill rate that shall be sufficient, with the income from other sources, to meet the estimated expenses of the Town for the next fiscal year. 

Back to our Budget Town scenario, the Town Council puts up a $101 million budget in May, and it fails. It puts up the same budget in June, and it fails. It then returns the budget to the voters a third time, and fails again.

It is now June 30th, the original budget which has failed in referendum three times now becomes the "interim budget," and the Town Council sets mill rates based on it. At this point, the Town Council can simply keep sending out the same budget every two weeks until either it becomes the next year or the voters give up an accept it.

The check on this is that the Town Council can be voted out in the next election... except that the terms are now four years, so if they do this early in their term, it is likely it will be long lost to memory when an election finally comes around.

Or the other way...
After the budget passes, the Town Council sets the mill rate. This means that, when the voters vote, they do not actually know what the budget will give them in terms of a tax rate. It also means that the Town Council could choose to add a small margin of safety into the mill rate to make sure it will cover all expected expenses. They could do something modest, say 1%. That's just prudent budgeting, right?

Oh, what's this?

9.15.2 The Council may make Emergency Appropriations not exceeding one-hundred thousand dollars ($100,000), by a vote of not less than seven (7) members of the Council, provided a public hearing, at which the public shall have an opportunity to be heard, shall be held prior to making such appropriations. The notice shall be made in accordance with Section 9.19. Such hearing and notice of hearing may be waived if the Council by an affirmative vote of not less than eight (8) of its members, shall decide that a delay in making the Emergency Appropriation would jeopardize the lives, health, or property of citizens.

Remember how Councilor A wanted to put money into the town dock? Well, now it's really falling apart. It could become dangerous before the next budget cycle. Better make an emergency appropriate. After all, we have a little more than expected in the general fund.

If the town dock repair is an emergency, that additional police officer that Councilor C wanted is definitely an emergency. The police force has been dangerously understaffed, and there is that unanticipated cash in the general fund.

As a side note, let's also hope there's never a real emergency that requires more than $100,000, because there's no provision for doing so.

Who's Empowered?
In summary, the Town Council, which now has 4 year terms, has the ability to force a budget around referendum objections, and gets to set the mill rate after the budget is passed.

This Charter Revision definitely empowers someone, but it's not the voters.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Three Great Loopholes In the Groton Charter Revision


I have been writing a series of articles about the proposed charter revision for Groton, Connecticut. This article gives a good understanding to start from if you are not familiar with the issue.

There are three crucial loopholes in the proposed charter for Groton, CT, which are exacerbated by the increase of their term from two years to four.
  • The Town Council can effectively ignore the referendum results
  • Mill rates are set after the budget is approved
  • Emergency allocations without check
Ignoring the Referendum
The voters hold the final authority through the budget referendum... or do they.

What happens if the voters fail the budget? In the new proposed charter...
9.12.6 Should either budget fail to be approved by a majority of those voting thereon, the Council shall, within seven days after a failed referendum, recommend a revised budget for each rejected budget, which may be less or greater than the failed budget, as the Council shall deem appropriate based on the results of the referendum.

Image result for ignore ballot
The Groton Town Council is normally comprised of
good, honest people looking to serve the people, but the
Charter must be written to prevent abuse by those who
might act poorly. Bad rules encourage bad behavior.
I bolded a key word in that section. It says "may" not "shall." That means that they Council can return the same budget in the next referendum, as Stonington did recently when they put up a budget that was rejected and then put up the same budget which was accepted.

But what happens if the budget fails three times?

9.12.6.6 Interim Budget and Fixing the Tax Rate In case a Budget is not approved by June 30, the budget submitted by the Town Council per Section 9.10.3 shall be utilized as an interim budget until a new Budget is approved by referendum. Within three (3) business days after an interim budget is approved goes in to effect, the Town Council will set a mill rate that shall be sufficient, with the income from other sources, to meet the estimated expenses of the Town for the next fiscal year. 

If the Town Council puts up a budget in May, and it fails, it can put up the same budget in June. When it fails, it can return the same budget to the voters a third time to be voted down a third time.

It is now June 30th, the original budget which has failed in referendum three times now becomes the "interim budget," and the Town Council sets mill rates based on it. At this point, the Town Council can simply keep sending out the same budget every two weeks until either it becomes the next year or the voters give up an accept it.

The check on this is that the Town Council can be voted out in the next election... except that the terms are now four years, so if they do this early in their term, it is likely it will be long lost to memory when an election finally comes around, meaning there is really no check at all.

The Mill Rate Is Set After the Referendum
The first thing that this means is that voters do not know what tax rate they are voting on. This is like buying a car knowing the sale price but not knowing your monthly payment. You're not paying $119,000,000, you're paying your share of taxes, but that's a mystery until the Town Council chooses it.

While there are guidelines to what they should do, they have quite a bit of latitude, which becomes important when you consider the power of Emergency Allocation, which was previously checked by the RTM, but will be checked by no one at all under the proposed revision.

Emergency Allocation Loophole
After the budget passes, the Town Council sets the mill rate. This means that, when the voters vote, they do not actually know what the budget will give them in terms of a tax rate. It also means that the Town Council could choose to add a small margin of safety into the mill rate to make sure it will cover all expected expenses. They could do something modest, say 1%. That's just prudent budgeting, right?

Oh, what's this?

9.15.2 The Council may make Emergency Appropriations not exceeding one-hundred thousand dollars ($100,000), by a vote of not less than seven (7) members of the Council, provided a public hearing, at which the public shall have an opportunity to be heard, shall be held prior to making such appropriations. The notice shall be made in accordance with Section 9.19. Such hearing and notice of hearing may be waived if the Council by an affirmative vote of not less than eight (8) of its members, shall decide that a delay in making the Emergency Appropriation would jeopardize the lives, health, or property of citizens.

Image result for emergency spending
Seven Councilors will have the power to determine any
emergency and act on it... unless it's over $100,000.
Then we're just out of luck.
With the agreement of 7 Councilors, they can agree that anything they like is an emergency, and many issues can be spun as emergencies. The police department is dangerously understaffed. Hiring another officer is an emergency. That road is a hazard, paving it is an emergency. That building is about to collapse. Fixing it is an emergency.

Under the present system, all such transfers must be approved by the RTM, requiring accountability and giving a check in which the transfer could be prevented.

Under the proposed charter, items that could not get approved in the referendum approved budget, could be slipped back in as "emergencies," and there's no one who can stop them.

On the other hand, let's also hope there's never a real emergency that requires more than $100,000, because there's no provision for doing so.

Who's Empowered?
In summary, the Town Council, which now has 4 year terms, has the ability to force a budget around referendum objections, and gets to set the mill rate after the budget is passed.

This Charter Revision definitely empowers someone, but it's not the voters. So, if you're planning to vote Yes on this revision because you think it will empower you as a voter, you may find yourself somewhat disappointed.