I have, at various times, served in local (town) government. I’m guessing that most of my fellow BMG participants who have done or now do the same have encountered the venerable “Streetlight strategy”, used by self-serving public officials to manipulate open government to their own often venal benefit.
Town meetings, whether open or representative, are generally scheduled to run a few successive nights. Most require a warrant to be published ahead of time, presenting every article to be acted on by town meeting. Those warrants often include items that would almost surely be rejected by informed town meeting members voting on the basis of a full presentation of the relevant facts and issues. The purpose of the “Streetlight strategy” is to assure the passage of those unpopular articles.
Here is how it works.
First, the offending article is buried as deeply as possible in innocuous surrounding language. As an example, consider a town that has decided on a “Town Manager” form of government. The compensation of such a position is frequently pegged to the size of the payroll managed by the individual. More town employees at higher wages generally translate to more compensation for the manager. Political influence also tends to increase with employee headcount. In smaller towns, the friends, neighbors, and family members of town workers become a potent political force. Even without outright political corruption, that same group often becomes a lucrative economic engine for those in power.
Given this context, it is therefore not surprising to see warrant articles that result in significant increases in both headcount and payroll for departments like police, fire, and public works. The first step in the “Streetlight Strategy” is to identify a particular arcane town account (“Municipal repair reserve”, or “Snow removal reserve”, or similar items) and write a warrant article proposing a dramatic increase. Usually the article cites accurate facts about how little has been placed in the reserve historically and paints a dire forecast of what happens if the reserve is exhausted. It’s crucial that the writing be very dense, contain lots of buzzwords, and be buried deep in the middle of the warrant.
A companion article is put forward proposing a significant increase in the streetlight replacement account. That account is always small (in comparison to others), so it’s easy to propose doubling or tripling it without proposing to spend an unseemly amount of money. That “Streetlight” article is written clearly and concisely.
Now comes the fun part. The Town Manager works unofficially with the town meeting moderator to develop a proposed agenda, specifying the order in which articles will be considered. The streetlight article is ideally placed somewhere in the middle of the agenda, so that comes up near the start of the second night of a two-night town meeting. It must precede the reserve article.
It is generally not hard to encourage discussion about the streetlight article. There will always be certain “conservative” town meeting members who can be counted on to squawk about any large percentage increase, regardless of the absolute dollar amount. Very few town meeting members (or attendees) actually take the enormous amount of time required to fully understand the import of every change in every article. So a discussion about the huge increase in the Streetlight Repair budget will always begin. The moderator (following the guidance of the Town Manager) will work the town meeting to ensure that the streetlight discussion is lengthy, protracted, and acrimonious.
With any luck at all, and with the help of a moderately skilled moderator, the streetlight debate will consume the bulk of the evening. A good moderator can stretch things out by making sure there are a few quorum calls, lots of debate about the fairness of calling for a vote before members have had their say, and so on. Ultimate, the streetlight article fails.
Now, the remainder of the warrant remains to be acted on. Nobody wants to stay another night. Nobody wants to stay past 11:00p or so. Thus, members themselves (again encouraged by the moderator) push their way through the rest of the warrant. Folks who stand to ask questions are not greeted warmly by their fellow members or the moderator. Since nobody understands the reserve article anyway, it generally passes with minimal discussion and with overwhelming support.
The deed is done.
Once the article is passed, the Town Manager will use his or her hiring authority to increase the head-count or payroll as desired, but with no increase in the budgeted line-item for that department. Since no increase is proposed, town meeting approval is not required. Somewhere around Q3, that department will (of course) run out of funds. At that point, the Town Manager will go before the fincom and propose to transfer funds from the reserve account passed at town meeting. The Town Manager will cite the dire consequences of failing to act (“We’ll have to lay off police”, “We’ll have to restrict water consumption”, and similar arguments). The fincom will invariably approve the transfer, and the deed is done.
The strategy is reminiscent of the “Strawman” or “Bait-and-switch” sales strategies. It is devastatingly effective.
I encourage those who suggest that this doesn’t happen to take another look at the on-going “Welfare Fraud” issue. Beacon Hill would MUCH PREFER us to have a lengthy, protracted, and acrimonious debate about welfare fraud.
“Welfare Fraud” is the streetlight article. We should, in my opinion, be working very carefully to identify the “reserve article” that is the real purpose of the exercise.