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19 Ideas for Challengers Seeking Public Office

Political petitions have been filed for candidates running for village, town, city, and county offices. We need more good people to run for public office, and no incumbent should get a free ride to re-election. Elections should be about ideas and providing a forum for communities to debate and discuss ways for a better future.

Running for public office against an incumbent is not easy. Incumbents have so many advantages, such as name recognition, money, and inside knowledge of how things work in politics and government. Through my frequent blog posts, articles, and direct emails to elected officials, I have tried to encourage implementing new ideas in government. Not many elected officials have expressed any interest in advocating for new ideas. Elected officials have an open floor at government meetings to propose new ideas by filing a resolution and having a vote taken on any issue they want to raise. Yet very few elected officials from my review of meeting minutes propose new ideas. Most incumbents seem to like keeping government operations just as they are.

Perhaps I should be focusing my time on communicating with people seeking office as challengers. In an effort to interest challengers open to new ideas, I have prepared a list of 19 ideas that can be discussed as part of a campaign for public office. If you are reading this article through a hard copy of Artvoice, I encourage you to go to and view the article online, too, where you can find more information about each one of these ideas by clicking on web links. Make your campaign about issues and new ideas to move your community forward.

1) Undercover Boss. Also known as management by walking around. The TV show Undercover Boss shows how much can be learned by working beside employees even for a short while. Commit to spending half a day every month working in a different department of your government. You will learn a tremendous amount from front-line employees, who will greatly appreciate your interest in what they do. You will gain new policy ideas every month.

2) Goal-Setting Retreat. Successful people and organizations set goals. Elected officials around the country meet annually to set goals for the coming year. For whatever reason such goal setting meetings rarely occur in Western New York’s local governments. Getting everyone to agree on a few high-priority goals takes some effort. Take the initiative and arrange for a goal-setting retreat with your elected colleagues.

3) Implement Lean. Lean production is a tool that has been used successfully in organizations around the world to improve their operations. Local governments throughout the US have used Lean to reduce the amount of time it takes to issue permits, fill pot-holes etc. The bureaucracy of government is frustrating for many citizens. Elected officials who focus on improving how government operates can make a big difference and a name for themselves.

4) Develop a Customer Service Plan. Elected officials are supposed to set policies and expectations. Quality customer service for the citizens you serve should be expressed in the form of a policy that sets goals and expectations. Check out the customer service plans adopted by other governments. Why can’t the same thing be done for the citizens you serve?

5) Ordinance/Regulation Task Force. In a January 2011 Executive Order, President Obama directed federal agencies to “lookback” at their current rules and regulations to determine if they still make sense and are necessary. The Executive Order requires agencies to: identify reforms that will produce significant savings, especially for small business; report to the public regularly on their efforts and plans; and obtain public comments to see which rules should be simplified, improved or repealed.

They same approach can be utilized in your community.

6) Open Government Policy. Citizens want government that is open, honest, and transparent. Open government does not happen by accident, it must be an established policy. Communities across the country have adopted open government policies but none in Western New York have. Talk about the need for open government now in your campaign and commit to sponsoring an open government policy that will compel your local government to operating in an open and transparent way; create an open government advisory board consisting of citizens and government officials; develop of a plan to make your government more open and transparent; monitoring progress toward the goals set.

7) Support Public Financing of Elections. The corrupting influence of money in elections and the huge advantage that incumbents have in fundraising needs to be addressed. We need more people to run for public office. One of the biggest items that prevents people from running and competing effectively is the amount of money it takes to seek office. The public financing implemented in New York City is a model that can and should be implemented at the state and local level.

8) Create a Procurement Policy Board. With the influence of campaign contributions and millions of dollars in government contracts available, there are many issues that a procurement policy board could and should address. The purpose of such a board is to create policies for procurement of goods and services; to encourage cooperative purchasing by departments and municipal agencies; to establish and review policies with respect to the methods for soliciting bids or proposals and awarding contracts; and to create standards and procedures to be used in determining whether vendors are responsible.

9) Support Goal-Setting. Government will not move forward until elected officials collaborate on establishing three high-priority goals for each department. It is important to limit department goals, as too many goals cause people and departments to lose focus. Defining goals will bring a new clarity of focus and make government more effective and efficient. We need leaders who can work with others instead of fighting about politics, patronage, and egos. To move our community forward, we need debates about priorities.

10) Term Limits. Government service should not be a career, as power even at the local level can corrupt. As a challenger, you know that new ideas and new faces in government are important. Incumbent politicians tend to get comfortable with the status quo and their own power. Support and introduce term limits as a way to bring new ideas and new faces into government service.

11) Learn How To Say No. From 2008 to 2010, the Tonawanda Town Board voted on 3,179 items. During this three-year period, there were only 11 instances where any Town Board member voted “no.” While the five member Tonawanda Town Board are all Democrats, it still surprises me there were 3,168 unanimous items and only 11 items with a “no” vote.

The Buffalo News recently reported that the newly elected Lancaster town supervisor “did something out of the ordinary: he voted ‘No’ on a resolution.” How unusual is this? Not a single “no” vote was cast in all of 2011. In fact the last previous “no” vote occurred in May 2010. Don’t be afraid to stand up and say no, even if you are the lone voice doing so.

12) End Taxpayer Subsidies For Economic Development. New York State spends $7 billion dollars per year on economic development incentives. Study after study has determined that government efforts to create jobs and companies fail. Be a voice in stopping the madness of corporate welfare.

13) Participatory Budgeting. Citizens do not feel that their voices are heard by government officials. Citizens are not engaged with their governments as far as actively participating in government decisions. Some elected officials are addressing this disconnect through a process called participatory budgeting, whereby a portion of a municipality’s budget is determined by citizens. Through community meetings, citizens will discuss, rank, and vote on things like where capital budget dollars should be spent.

14) Create an Innovation Fund. The purpose of such a fund is to provide seed money for one-time investments that will lead to improved results, increased revenue, and/or reduced ongoing operating costs. The innovation fund is meant to be self-sustaining; savings from the investments are returned to the fund so that other projects may be funded. Continuing this fund is one way to keep department heads and staff focused on innovation and spur creative solutions to using limited resources.

15) Land Value Taxation. If you could create a tax system that did not penalize people for improving their properties, you would be a hero. It makes people angry when they paint their house, add siding or an addition, and then get hit with an increase in their property tax assessment. What is even worse is if you have a run-down vacant piece of land or property, there is no tax penalty for doing nothing to improve your property.

Some communities have adopted a property tax system called land value taxation, which completely flips the scenario described above. Several communities in Pennsylvania have implemented land value taxation.

As an elected official, you get heat all the time about the property tax system, so why not make a bold move and propose a major change to the system? Successful people change the rules of the game. Pushing this in your community will not be easy and it may requires changes at a higher level of government, but didn’t you get elected to make a difference?

16) Competition. Government services should be provided as effectively and efficiently as possible. One way to provide government services better, faster, and cheaper is through competition. Honest bid soliciting that is not skewed towards the politically connected is important. In some communities, public sector employees are given the opportunity to compete with private sector companies to see who can provide services, better, faster, and cheaper.

17) Benchmarking Performance. One way to improve government services is to compare how effective and efficient services are being provided with similar municipalities. The International City County Managers Association has a service that assists municipalities with measuring their performance against other municipalities. This is a great way to measure and track where your local government stands.

18) Question what services your municipality provides. Why does your municipality own parking lots and ramps, golf courses, and health clubs subsidized by tax dollars that private entities may be able to do better, faster, and cheaper? Why does your municipality provide substance abuse services that are also provided by countless nonprofit organizations?

19) Part-Time Elected Officials Should Not Earn Full-Time Pensions. Every year municipalities pass a resolution that sets what a standard work day is for their elected officials. In order for part-time elected officials to earn full-time pension credit, they have to work at least 30 hours per week. Due to this 30-hour week requirement, just about every municipality passes a resolution stating their part-time elected officials work 30 hours per week. As a challenger to the status quo, one of the first actions you should take is to vote against any resolution calling for part-time elected officials to work 30 hours per week, so that they can earn a full-time pension at taxpayer expense. Part-time elected officials should work part-time, which is 20 hours per week or less.

I hope that some of these ideas will be helpful to challengers seeking public office. More than likely your name is not as well known as your opponent and you are not going to have as much money to spend as your opponent. Make your campaign platform about ideas that can make a difference in your community.

Paul Wolf is an attorney and the president of the Center For Reinventing Government, Inc. (

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