We’ve focused on the ballot committees in Part 1 & Part 2 of our analysis of our November 2014 campaigns. For Part 3, we’ll shift our focus to the role that a well planned and executed Information Only campaign by staff and trustees plays in success at the ballot box.
The library communities in Northville, MI., Park Ridge, IL., and Cranston, RI. won not just because of the good work their ballot committees did, but also because of the way that library leadership shared their Plan for the library. Each of the 3 local ballot committees did an excellent job of representing the library’s measure in a neighbor-to-neighbor and voter-to-voter way. But, crucially, the librarians and trustees themselves stepped-up in a way that was – within the law and ethical guidelines for public employees on public time and for public officials acting in an official capacity – truly high-impact. They did this by developing not just one Plan and putting it in front of the voters, but by developing two Plans so the choice between passage and failure was clearly laid out for the voters, residents, and stakeholders. This isn’t usually how it’s done.
Usually, when a library goes out for a vote, they offer a Question to the voters like: “Shall the Public Library levy $1 million in new taxes to run the library?” or “Shall the District Library offer $20 million in bonds to build a new facility?”. Voters are asked to make choice to about that Question. Yes or No, should we raise taxes for the library? The discussion in town focuses around that Question and voters debate the merits of that Question. Do we really need a new library? What are they spending our money on already? I don’t use the library, why should I fund it? The only option given to voters is to agree with that Question or to disagree with that Question. Information Only campaigns around the country are framed in a way to point to a Yes vote on that Question. And within the limits of the law, the library typically presents an argument for the Question and hopes they community agrees. It’s a traditional and time honored way of doing Information Only.
But we work it differently. When we work on Information Only campaigns, we want our libraries to frame the discussion not around voting on a single Question but as a choice between two Plans for the community. We work with our libraries to help them also build Plan B. Their Question is already Plan A. What happens from a management and fiduciary perspective if this funding measure doesn’t pass? What happens if the bond to build the new building isn’t authorized? That’s Plan B. As trustees and staff, we have as much responsibility to anticipate – through a management plan – a loss as we do for a potential win. If we leave it up to voter-conjecture about what the consequences of a No vote are, we’re assuming that the voters are well enough informed already.
In all three of these winning communities, the library director, senior staff, and boards understood that the choice before the voters should be between Plan A and Plan B, and not just a referendum on a Question. They took the time to fully explore and expose to the public a management and operations plans for both contingencies. It was the responsible thing for them to do. And it wasn’t entirely easy or welcome to look at what Plan B means. In Park Ridge, it was a supplemental levy. A loss would have meant more years of a structural deficit and the unavoidable need to cut hours and limit collections. In Northville, it was a levy renewal. A loss would have been a significant cut to hours, programs, collections and staff because the a basic part of the funding for the library would not be reauthorized. In Cranston, it was a building bond. A lack of funds to repair and renovate facilities citywide would mean continuing cost overruns on patchwork repairs and lack of new capacity to address community need.
But what the directors of all three libraries did next was the ‘last mile’ of a successful Information Only campaign: they took Plan A and Plan B on the road. We’re singling out Jan Van De Carr in Park Ridge, and Ed Garcia in Cranston, and Julie Herrin in Northville because they are our campaigns and they did fantastic work. But they each already knew that the best way to talk about the value and impact of the library is to be seen as their community’s librarian. And they didn’t go out alone to share Plan A and Plan B. We helped coach their staff at all levels to understand their own role in talking about what Plan A and Plan B would mean. We encouraged their boards to participate in the communications by talking about their work developing Plan A and Plan B. Because the library staff and trustees put together two Plans, the Vote Yes committee could talk to neighbors and voters more clearly about the choice on Election Day. The necessary and germane role for staff and trustees was to share those Plans with other agencies, organizations, departments, and stakeholder groups in town in advance of the vote.
We’d like all library campaigns to talk about Plan A and Plan B. If you limit the discussion to just the Question, then the voters lack information about what the consequences are of a No vote are, too. Without a clear Plan B (if it fails) the voters have no visibility to the way the library trustees and staff plan to manage ‘without’ the resources in the Question. We can’t assume they know. We have to tell them. And while the voters may not love Plan A, if the choice is between a Plan A – where there is a library resourced to support the community – and a Plan B – where those resources will either continue to lack or become diminished – the voter is a more informed voter. If they like Plan A or simply trust that Plan A was arrived at in an appropriate way, they’ll vote for it. But if they don’t necessarily understand, appreciate, or buy into Plan A… well, in the absence of a clear Plan B all they have to vote on is Plan A. And if Plan B is developed by the staff and the board in the same open, transparent, and responsible manor as Plan A, the choice is a lot clearer.
Park Ridge Library Info-Only Materials
Cranston Public Library Info-Only Page
Cranston Public Library Info-Only Video: