Mayors of Rochester Hills & Oklahoma City Share Thoughts on Truth and Trust
(Crystal A. Proxmire, March 22, 2021)
Public trust in politics is at an all-time low, yet for those who serve in local government, there is a glimmer of hope that they can be the ones to make things better.
“We are in an uphill battle to maintain truth and integrity, especially among our profession where we generally rank between used car salesperson and hedge fund manager or something,” said Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett at the recent Michigan Municipal League Capital Convention. He and Oklahoma City, OK Mayor David Holt shared the screen for a virtual conversation on “The Progress Found at the Intersection of Truth and Trust.”
Over 150 elected officials and administrators from across the state tuned in the hear the mayors talk about the challenges of trust and what they can do to help restore residents’ faith that democracy does work.
But, they contended, it would be up to individual officials like those on the call to proactively take on the challenge.
Barnett and Holt were introduced by Ypsilanti City Manager Frances McMullan. “We find ourselves in an information age. Many constituents have access to a lot of information, some information true, some not true. But this information they have taken it and they have made it their reality. And as a result, sometimes it makes it hard for public servants to do what they need to do because you’re constantly challenged and constituents are constantly looking at you, and watching you, and comparing the information they’ve received with the information they actually see.”
When constituents have false information, she added, “Sometimes it’s hard for officials to break that news to them.”
While there is a national conversation about the hyper-polarization of the main political parties, Washington politics is not the only cause of mistrust and disengagement with the process. Holt argues that the way individuals are treated when interacting with their local governments is also part of the decline in trust.
It’s easy to tell people what they want to hear, or to avoid telling them hard truths because having harder, more complex conversations can be hard, especially if an official doesn’t want to disappoint the constituent.
“You have to make the choice, are you going to tell the truth or not,” he said. If you’re trying to avoid disappointing the person, “You’re going to say ‘thanks for your comment, we’ll take a look at that. The ultimate cop-out of an elected official…It is the McGuyver of any circumstance. It can get you out of any political problem. But, it is a comforting lie. You knew better… but you didn’t want to disappoint the person.
“I would submit to you that our country is drowning in a sea of ‘We’ll take a look at that’s.’”
Mayor Hold added, “The lie doesn’t age well. Eventually that person finds out the truth. They will eventually discover their idea is not going to happen, and they will be disappointed.. As a result their trust in you, and their trust in government, will have been eroded.”
He argued that it’s better to be upfront with the constituent and educate them a bit about the process. One suggestion was that instead of saying no to an idea, talk out what would be necessary to make it a yes. For example, ideas need to have widespread support among people in the community. Ideas need to be funded. And ideas need to be put into context along with the other choices governments must make. “You can frame it as, ‘here’s what it would take to make that happen,” Holt said.
Both Holt and Barnett are seasoned officials with a good handle on the nuances of public relations, but for new officials it can be hard to get their bearings. Starting with the simple ideas of being truthful with residents and working actively to restore trust not only in yourself, but in government, are good foundations.
Mayor Barnett even spreads this message to the young people in his community. “I tell every fifth grade class in Rochester Hills, is when you’re the mayor you do a lot of media, and I bet even though you’re only in fifth grade you know the key thing is to always tell the […], and they all say ‘the truth.’ And I explain to them that sometimes its great, you get to cut a ribbon on a new cookie factory or an exciting project like a playground, but sometimes it’s challenging – it’s a bad police situation, a fire that might have taken the life of a resident and you want to tell about an important lesson learned. But it’s challenging.”
Like when a little girl sent him a letter saying that Rochester Hills should get an In and Out Burger, Barnett did not simply write back that he liked In and Out Burger too and that he’d look into it. No. He was upfront with the kid, explaining that In and Out Burgers only have distribution on the West Coast because of the way their product supply and delivery system was implemented to ensure their products freshness. There would be no In and Out Burger in Rochester Hills, and he was upfront about that.
For some more voter-aged examples, Mayor Barnett spoke of The Auburn Road Corridor Project,” which he said was a “transformational change in that part of the city.” He wanted to hear from people beyond just those who engage in council meetings.
“I began going down there to have lunch and just sitting in different restaurants along this corridor, and meeting the people that lived down there and talking about this change that was coming,” he said. Doing so helped him and his staff communicate more effectively about the project, and gather important resident suggestions as well.
Another example was the development of a fitness related business that neighbors initially opposed. Talking with residents and listening to their needs helped forge a path of understanding as the developer offered to give each property owner a nice sum of money to make improvements to the parts of their property abutting the business – enabling them to add fences, trees, and other landscaping. The result was that 67 property owners we able to beautiful their yards and feel like they were part of the changes happening in the community.
The day to day efforts of local officials are the way to bring clarity and trust, regardless of the national political mood. “People want Washington to look more like Rochester Hills, than Rochester Hills to look like Washington,” Barnett said. “I think they like and trust the locals first, and we shouldn’t forfeit that high ground; that what we’re doing, the relationships we’re building, I believe we’re on the right path.”
For more on Michigan Municipal League, check out their website at http://www.mml.org.