With the 2016 elections quickly approaching, business owners everywhere are wondering who will win the presidential race and how the political makeup of Congress will change.
And no wonder: The decisions of the voters will determine the passage of legislation that helps or hinders the economy over the coming four years.
But as important as the federal elections are, your business operations will likely realize a more profound impact by decisions made at a much lower level of the political food chain: your city.
“It’s all too easy to focus our attention on legislation and regulations from the federal government,” says Sean W. Hadley, a Moorestown, N.J.-based attorney active in government relations. “But the reality is that businesses are more affected by ordinances passed by their local communities than by anything that goes through – or doesn’t go through – Congress and the federal agencies.”
All politics: Local
The good news is that you can make your voice heard.
“The small business owner can have the greatest effect at the local government level, where the politicians can be the most approachable,” says Marc H. Pfeiffer, assistant director at the Bloustein Local Government Research Center in New Brunswick, N.J. “Politicians do not get re-elected by saying ‘no’ to people. They want to be able to say ‘yes.’”
Local governments typically control a host of mission-critical “quality of business” issues. Among them are business licensing and expansion, the design of storefronts and building exteriors, parking, billboards and any activities that affect the environment.
An unfriendly ordinance passed in any of those areas can throw a monkey wrench into your own business engine. Consider especially the control that local governments have over roads, including their quality, their cleanliness and the placement of navigational signs, making it easy or difficult for customers to find a business. Even the direction of traffic depends upon local regulations. Imagine waking up one morning to discover the street in front of your business has been changed to a one-way conduit – in a direction not favorable to your customer pool.
Business ambitions or planned projects can often be stymied by apparently arbitrary regulations.
“Zoning issues are a local concern and an issue many people don’t worry about until they start to expand or make business improvements, such as installing new signs or larger and brighter windows,” Hadley says. “Then they can run into problems with a requirement to preserve structural elements or utilize certain themes or colors.”
Business and government conflicts can also arise when measures are passed that affect employment practices – paid sick leave and minimum wage laws among them.
When you try to resolve your own issues in any of the above areas, Hadley says, you’ll get no help from politicians at the national level.
“Changes to city and state regulations can only be addressed by your local representatives, not by Congress or the president.”
Given the realities of local politics, how can you protect your business from damaging regulations?
First, you need to be informed about what’s going on in your town hall, including pending legislative initiatives.
“Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to local laws and regulations,” says Nancy Bocskor, a political consultant in Arlington, Va.
Second, you need to set up your own early warning system so you hear about harmful regulatory changes before they are so far advanced that you can no longer effectively counter them.
“When a story about a new regulation appears in your local press, it’s too late for you to make an impact,” says Fairfield, Conn.-based attorney Cliff Ennico, author of “Small Business Survival Guide.” “A lot of debate occurs before votes are taken on a proposed measure, and you need to get your voice heard early in the decision cycle. If there’s a hearing in three weeks about rezoning the downtown business district, and that’s where your business is located, you want to be at that hearing.”
So how do you set up an early warning system? One way is to take advantage of existing resources.
“Most municipalities have a website,” Pfeiffer says.
Many local agencies now post their calendars online, making it easy to check their activities. Is a meeting scheduled for the near future? Obtain a copy of the agenda to see what topics might impact your business.
“Your town website may offer news feeds, e-newsletters, Facebook pages or Twitter posts,” Pfeiffer says.
All such media are conduits for news about proposed regulations.
“Also look for ‘hyperlocal’ websites where people write blogs or maintain online newspapers about local government affairs,” he says.
Plugging into these information sources can provide you the alerts you need to take action to make your voice heard on proposed legislation.
Making your voice heard at town meetings is one way to influence your local political establishment.
Another way is to reach out to local politicians, make your presence known, and become a trusted source for feedback on how proposed legislation might affect the small business community.
Start with the councilman who represents your specific neighborhood. Call that person’s office and make an appointment to discuss topics of interest to the business community. While there, ask for the names of other local movers and shakers with whom you should initiate a dialogue.
You can also invite your representatives to visit your place of business.
“Let the politicians see what you do and how many people you employ and how much tax revenue you generate,” Bocskor says. “You need to be proactive in making sure they understand the value you bring to your community.”
Whatever the venue, establish a dialogue rather than a one-way diatribe. Consider emphasizing your potential to help the politician do a better job, by making a statement such as this: “I have my finger on the pulse of small business. I can be a friendly resource for you. Call me whenever you have any question about the impact of proposed legislation on small business.”
This plants an important seed that can flower into a measure of influence: The politician will see you not only as a spokesman for your own interest, but also for those of the business community at large.
Offer to help
Helping a politician do a better job promotes the kind of win-win relationship that goes a long way toward building your power base.
“Politics is all about backscratching,” Ennico says. “Tell the politician how you will help him or her in exchange for support for your position on proposed legislation.”
If the politician supports a bill you want passed, will you invite him or her to speak before your civic group on the topic? That can help garner more voters.
While you can employ this process with as many politicians as you like, your time is limited, so you will need to be selective.
“Find out who the powerful people are,” Ennico suggests. “In every community, there are people who are effective in making things happen and people who are not. And the former might not be the people with the biggest offices. In one town, for example, it might be the head of the local Democratic party rather than the mayor.”
Your informal talks with local politicians will reveal the names of these power players. Those are the ones you want to cultivate.
As all of these suggestions imply, your first contact with a politician should be to establish a dialogue. Avoid making a request right away.
“It’s never good to start a relationship with your needs at the forefront,” Hadley says. “Remember you will need this person’s assistance over the long term.”
Once you have cultivated a growing relationship, though, feel free to approach the politician with your own ideas. Perhaps you want to block a proposed regulation. Or perhaps you want to promote an entirely new business-friendly ordinance. At this point, you will be happy that you have a friendly person to call.
Despite the relationship you have established with the politician, you want to present your case as benefiting the community at large rather than your business in particular. That requires doing your homework. When speaking about how a proposed regulation will affect your revenues or your employment activity, do so in the context of how your activities, and those of other businesses in your town, help the region grow and prosper. Do the numbers.
“Back up your story with data,” Bocskor says. “Show the official how a certain proposed regulation will affect X, Y and Z. People need to know the consequences of government actions that too often sound good before you do the math.”
Speaking of numbers, few are as important as the ones in your town’s budget.
You may not ordinarily give much thought to that arcane document, but it can have an outsized influence on your business.
“Budget issues are really issues of priority,” Hadley says. “Suppose you need improvements to the roads leading to your place of business, and you were able to convince your town to pass an ordinance requiring that. You think you have accomplished your goal, but if the town budget does not allocate the requisite funds you will see no road improvements over the coming year. Without the money to fund it, an ordinance is only worth the paper it’s written on.”
Vital as it is, involvement with the town budget is a long game.
“You have to start small, by getting to know your town officials,” Hadley says. “You can’t just walk into your town hall and say ‘I want to know everything about the budget and want to influence it.’ Your town officials will not be forthcoming. You have to get to know them first on a personal level as a small business owner.”
Team up for success
These suggestions have championed the political power of the small business owner acting alone. But there’s no doubt that scheduling constraints can hamper even the most well-intentioned effort.
“Any kind of community work is a time vampire,” Ennico says. “We are so busy running our shops and working 24/7 that taking time out for civic involvement is a lot to ask. It’s easy to let things slide because you are too busy.”
Reach out to your fellow business owners for assistance. When they see you have blazed a trail through the wilderness of local politics, they will be more willing to lend a hand. Join your local chamber of commerce or business council.
Small business people working together can improve the local business climate for everyone.
“If you don’t reach out, you will become invisible to local politicians,” Ennico says. “And when you become invisible, bad things can happen.”
Know the rules
Respect ethical boundaries when you deal with politicians.
“You have to follow the rules regarding expenditures or gifts,” says Sean W. Hadley, a Moorestown, N.J.-based attorney active in government relations. “This is true even for smaller social gratuities.”
You might be tempted to invite your local mover and shaker to lunch, for example, given that meal’s traditional role as a business negotiation icebreaker. Bad idea. You do not want to offer a favor with a financial component, no matter how modest.
Offering to treat the politician to lunch (or even to a cup of coffee), Hadley warns, can put the individual in the awkward position of having to turn down a social offer. You don’t want to start your relationship on a sour note.
“Even if a luncheon is not technically bribery, politicians are very suspicious of anything that might be misinterpreted that way by a third party,” says Fairfield, Conn.-based attorney Cliff Ennico, author of “Small Business Survival Guide.” “In today’s world, a politician is only one scandal away from being worthless.