Effective complaining 101

By Roy J. Eaton | Published Saturday, October 18, 2014

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Our reporters who cover the Rhome City Council meetings generally come away wondering how anything gets accomplished in that atmosphere.

Roy J. Eaton

Roy J. Eaton

After a recent visit to Rhome, my colleague Bob Buckel said he was glad he didn’t try to record audio for his notes. With council members talking among themselves and with audience members, people at the podium getting into verbal jousts with audience members, offhand comments drawing laughs – it would have been impossible to tell who was talking.

He said it seemed more like an informal social gathering than an agenda-driven public meeting.

The Rhome City Council has been a mess for years, as members with personal agendas go after the fire department, the police department, the public works department – or just rain down attacks on each other.

Geographically, Rhome is in a perfect place for development, but any business or homeowner who looks at the political chaos of city government would quickly turn away.

It’s tough to see your hometown become the laughingstock of Wise County, but that’s what has happened. Sooner or later Dallas/Fort Worth television will discover the situation, and the embarrassment will spread throughout the Metroplex.

The other day, while cleaning out some old files, I ran across a column I had written in 1998 that bears some relevance to the situation Rhome and other small city councils and school boards often face.

Consider this a free lesson in effective complaining, sure to be worth every penny.

Actually Paul Harral, a retired editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, wrote a similar column, and it inspired me to do the same. Here are a few ideas on how to win friends and influence people through complaints to elected officials – specifically, city councils and school boards.

Rule 1. Know what you’re talking about. Normally elected officials are pretty well informed about what is going on and why, and if you’re not credible, you will get nowhere. Do your homework before you open your mouth.

Rule 2. Keep your cool. You’ll get nowhere yelling at elected officials or being a jerk. The best ones will smile and let you yell and say thank you and you’ll never get anywhere. Don’t be a demagogue.

Rule 3. Do your complaining at public meetings or during office hours. Don’t call a public official at home with a gripe. Of course, you elected them, but you don’t own them. Just because they get a paycheck from taxpayers (and many Wise County city councils and school boards receive little or no compensation) doesn’t mean you should invade their privacy with your complaints.

Rule 4. Deal with the city or school staff to see if the problem can be worked out before taking your complaints to elected officials in public session. If you haven’t tried to work it out at a staff level, that will be the first thing the elected officials ask you to do.

Rule 5. Get support from others. If you want a zoning change or something that might be controversial, get your neighbors to agree to it in advance. These agreements will go a long way in helping you get your way.

Rule 6. When there is a public hearing on an issue, speak up. Lots of people don’t want to take a stand, so if you’re willing to state your piece in a sound and sensible way, you may be more successful than others who will say nothing.

Rule 7. When you speak at a public hearing, speak to the city council or school board or planning and zoning commission and not to the audience. A good meeting chairman makes it a requirement to go to the podium and state your name before you speak.

Rule 8. Don’t try to be a big shot. If you’re a big taxpayer, public officials know it before you ever speak. If you’re not, it doesn’t matter. Bragging about how much in taxes you pay in an effort to get action usually gets you nowhere. Those with the most influence are those who quietly go about the business of building relationships with staff members and seeking relief from elected officials only when absolutely necessary.

Rule 9. Don’t complain if some issue “sneaks up on you” and then it’s too late to do something about it.

The Messenger regularly runs “advance” stories on city council and school board meetings that include important items for discussion and action. Every major issue has a public hearing, and they are advertised in the legal notice section of the newspaper.

There’s no excuse for being uninformed.

Rule 10. Go back and reread Rule 1.

Roy Eaton is publisher of the Wise County Messenger.

2 Responses to “Effective complaining 101”

  1. Roy Eaton is a gentleman and a scholar! He represents the best of values, and we are privileged to have him be a newspaper owner and publisher in Wise County. I commend him highly for this thoughtful and stimulating description of how citizens should participate in their local government.

  2. Clint Mercer says:

    I’d like to add one to your list, Mr. Eaton. Elected officials do their best to separate their personal and public lives. Citizens/Taxpayers should do the same. Those folks are volunteering their time to maintain or improve quality of life in your community. If you happen to disagree with an official action or opinion, don’t let that tear down personal relationships between families and friends.


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