Making a difference in your ‘hood

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

From potholes to seemingly endless construction projects, we all seem to have complaints about what our neighborhoods look like or how our tax dollars are being spent.

We probably can’t remake our communities in our own image, but we can make a difference.

If you think getting angrier alongside people who think exactly like you without improving things is your answer, you can be guaranteed that you will continue to get more of the same.

No one, especially those who count on public support (or votes) likes to be criticized or embarrassed.

Your local government is run by hard-working nerds who show up to meetings. You could be one of them.

Or you could at least get to know and maybe even work with some local officials on a project that means something to you.

Find out when your Planning and Zoning, Adjustment Board, and City Council meets.

Email your representatives your perspective about specific items on the agenda.

Volunteer to be part of a citizen review process.

Volunteer to be on your town’s tree commission or neighborhood council so that you start making connections and have a longer resume when there’s an opening on a Planning Board or neighborhood steering committee you could apply for.

Learn what your city spends taxpayer money on.

You’ll probably be horrified at how much the frozen rule of “We’ve always done it this way” controls most local budgets.

Take a close look at an aerial map of your neighborhood.

How much of your real estate is dedicated to things that make your area better?

How much is paved over and barely used? Or even neglected?

Do we really want to set aside – and subsidize – so much land for cars and parking?

Define the real issue

On any given issue, complainers are easily dismissed. It’s harder to dismiss someone who can appeal to perspectives, values and visions everyone shares.

It’s probably fair to say that almost everyone supports local business, accessible parks, good schools and coherent and consistent planning. And quiet and clean streets. And safety and respect for property.

Like getting consistent exercise, changes in policy take some getting used to. Few, if any of us change our minds if we are challenged or confronted.

You might notice that, on most issues, few people have thought out their positions and may not hold their beliefs as firmly as you may have thought.

Or what seems like a solid argument is built on a foundation that is not so solid.

Here’s an argument I hear a lot; “Why should we build bike lanes when hardly anybody bikes?”

My answer is “Would you bike more if you had a safe place to do it?”

They almost always say “Of course”.

How many more of us would rides bikes if we could safely?

I know a few people who are convinced that the government wants to get us out of our cars.

The irony of that argument is that massive tax subsidies, from oil to highways, and much more, are specifically designed to keep us all in our cars.

Driving a car – especially a big one – is everyone’s right. But why should those who don’t drive subsidize those who do? Besides, avenues for cars or pedestrians of all kinds have always operated on the principle of “build it and it will be used”. What’s different about bikes?

Ask good questions

What, exactly, is the issue? What is it about homelessness, for example that arouses such ire?

Is it the mess? The human misery?

Or just the fact that we have to see it?

Having a fix on the real issue allows us to get a handle on a real answer.

Is moving the homeless to a site where we don’t have to see them an answer? For whom? And for how long?

On this, or any issue, are we looking for permanent solutions? Or just kicking it along so someone else deals with it?

Does our tax structure reward or penalize productive use of property? Does it reward or penalize neglect?

Ask appropriate questions

An important question is the eternal one; how will it be paid for?

The irony is that, for most of the budget items draining our budgets, from law enforcement to homelessness, to addiction, public schools and social services, the cost of doing nothing has been overwhelming.

Almost every investment returns its cost – if not more – almost immediately.

Some of the arguments regarding cost veer into absurdity almost immediately. One line of opposition to many projects is “users should pay for it”.

At first glance, this seems reasonable.

The exceptions to this principle are too many to mention, but schools, health care, the military and transportation are only a few.

Maybe, in some cases at least, those who benefit should pay the most.

There are many public services, like law enforcement or fire prevention as only a couple examples, that I am glad to pay for – and hope I never use.

In other words, many projects and public services are far better as investments than as crises in the making.

Find those who agree with you

It might seem hard to believe, but if something bugs you, or if you see something that needs to be done, you are probably not alone.

If you can find one or two who agree with you, and they know one or two, after just a few meetings, you have enough to make your position known – or considered – or even passed.


Show up at meetings, even if you don’t say anything.

Ask questions. Suggest alternatives. Don’t be the loud and rude person everyone ignores.

Be patient. Persist. Local government moves slowly. Even if the city staff agrees with you, that doesn’t mean they assign the same priority to things you do – or have the tools to act on your suggestion.

Keep in touch with decision makers. Let them know that you support them. Make it clear that you are there to help them make good decisions.

Have practical, do-able suggestions

Good designs and ideas are contagious.

Some need to be lived or directly experienced to be understood.

Show photos or video clips of what other communities have done.

Maybe even run for office

Running for office is not for everyone.

Holding office often means that agendas that you may not have considered – or that you disagree with – may hold more sway than you ever imagined.

The bottom line about local officials, from the school board to the local parks, to city or county council, is that those seats are filled by people not so different from any of us. They care and they stepped up.

That’s what a good neighbor does.