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Establishing Priorities For Change

Change is hard. The public doesn’t like it. Change is also not often rewarded at the polls. I still remember what happened to Mayor Steven Carlson when, because it had become a significant financial burden for the city, he made the decision to merge Jamestown General Hospital with WCA. He was not re-elected.

Yet, change we must if, in our body politic, we are going to move ahead. I have made a case in these articles that the City of Jamestown is in financial straits because of its burgeoning cost of police and fire services brought on by, among other things, “20 year and out” pensions at half pay. The New York State Comptroller has also said that many small school districts with declining enrollment are in “financial stress.”

It seems to me that in confronting change, municipalities and school districts who find themselves in “stress” situations could benefit by establishing some priorities.

1. Ten Year Time Horizon: Think about what the public body you represent should look like in 10 years, not just next year or through the next election cycle.

2. Models to Follow: Other municipalities or school districts have faced similar issues. Which ones have been most successful in dealing with them? Bring people into the conversation from other areas who have been dealing with similar problems. They might have some good ideas.

3. Continually Engage the Public. The public doesn’t like change, but people can be convinced to vote for change if the arguments are compelling. At their core, people want viable municipalities and top-notch schools. You can never give the public too much information-whether it is good or bad news.

4. Affirm Risk: Because the public resists change, it often turns against those who advocate for it. Yet, change cannot happen unless elected officials lead the way. There is no easy way around it. Leadership for change means taking political risk. But, when the viability of public services is at stake-it is a risk worth taking.

Winston Churchill once observed that “Democracies are the worst form of government except for all of the others that have been tried from time to time.” In the end, despite being slow and cumbersome, our democratic institutions can adapt to the challenges they face.

A Chautauqua County resident interested in analyzing public policy from a long term perspective writes these views under the name Hall Elliot.