When an anti-growth movement got enough votes from residents to put a measure on the upcoming ballot to abolish the local government and start over, the city’s officials turned to us out of despair.
Here’s the case, as we recall…
Before becoming the home of Dell computers, Round Rock, Texas, had only a few thousand residents, most of whom commuted to Austin for work. At that time, land was plentiful and cheap, and to Michael Dell, Round Rock was the perfect location for the expansion of his corporation.
Along with its new headquarters, the Dell Corporation brought more than 16,000 local jobs to the City of Round Rock. That single change rapidly increased the city’s population from 5,000 to over 100,000.
While residents and city officials welcomed the economic development and opportunities of hosting Dell Corp. and the other businesses it brought, the growing pains it came with were undeniable. Most notable was the tremendous strain on the City’s existing infrastructure.
Out of necessity, Round Rock officials had to adopt drastic planning measures to meet the demands of such a large population with little time for public involvement. There was an incredible urgency for professionals from the Planning and Public Works departments to design and build new streets, neighborhoods, water and sewer systems, schools, playgrounds, police and fire stations, etc.
Every step of the planning, permitting, and implementation process had to be expedited to meet the basic needs of the City’s population explosion.
It wasn’t long before an anti-growth movement emerged. Not only were Round Rock’s public officials criticized for their plans to expand the city’s infrastructure, but the City Manager (Bob Bennett) and Mayor (Robert Stluka) were personally accused of “ruining the town,” not being responsive to the desires of existing residents, and of enabling an “evil form of government” to destroy the very nature of Round Rock. (Of course, that wasn’t how the public officials saw it!)
The anti-growth group called for an end to the “evil local government” by starting a referendum that invoked an ordinance (known as “Home Rule”) that would allow voters to abolish the City’s existing government and let residents create a new, more legitimate and trustworthy government.
The group got the “Home Rule” item on the fall ballot with the necessary signatures. That’s when the local officials sought us, and our Consent-Building training, for help.
Round Rock’s leadership had limited time to turn around the anti-growth group’s narrative and get the public (and City Council) to conclude their infrastructure plans were not only technically sound – but fair and responsive to the objections and concerns of the anti-growth interests – in addition to those of the community at large.
Long story short, under the leadership of (then) City Manager Bennett, Mayor Stluka, and the Communication Director Will Hampton, we trained many members of the City’s staff in our Consent-Building approach (SDIC: the Systematic Development of Informed Consent). All of them took to Consent-Building like fish to water, and immediately put it to work.
With only a few months before the fall ballot, Round Rock’s staff dedicated themselves to reversing the anti-government perceptions of their very angry public.
As a result, they turned what started as a public relations – and governing – crisis, into an opportunity for earning the public’s trust, respect, and legitimacy.
How did they do it?
City officials changed their communication strategy to address the serious misgivings the anti-growth group had unearthed. Instead of focusing on the benefits of the new plans, they brought up the concerns of the anti-growth interests and their responsibilities to meet the needs of a much larger population.
It was too late to stop a “Home Rule” measure from appearing on the fall ballot, but it wasn’t too late to develop the public and policymakers’ Informed Consent.
We coached them on what tools and techniques they could use to resolve the misunderstandings and mistrust behind the movement to abolish the existing government.
There was no guarantee that it wasn’t too little too late, but over that spring and summer, the city’s staff took our advice and began to communicate differently with the (outraged) public.
By the fall, not only had the anti-growth movement dissipated, but so had the calls to abolish the existing form of government!
As an added measure of “support” for the existing form of government – and a textbook case of the healing potential of Consent-Building – the very people who had instigated the ballot measure reversed their demands that Mayor Stluka be replaced by publicly announcing they wouldn’t run any candidate against him or the City Council!
This case was an incredible mark of success and only the first of many by the city’s staff in using our Consent-Building method.