Manager's Forum - February/March 2007

Lansing, Mich.
Sandy Draggoo
CEO/Executive Director
Capital Area Transportation Authority (CATA)

The best way to "deal" with local politics is to not deal with them at all. If the phrase "dealing with local politics" sounds like handling toxic materials then it may be a symptom of relationships that need mending. CATA's lack of negative experiences with local politics cannot be attributed to good luck. Conflicts thrive when relationships and communication are weak or non-existent. They can drain valuable time and energy needed to effectively manage a transit system. So, what is that healthy design for governmental relations?

It starts with service. We work tirelessly to respond to the public need in a positive manner. Whether it is a mayor, a township supervisor or a customer, all requests are carefully considered and if the proposed change is for the public good and resources allow, we try to be responsive to those needs. Occasionally an idea comes forward that is flawed. But, with those relationships in good shape, we can freely discuss alternative solutions that make sense. Our local leaders trust that CATA is where the local transportation expertise resides.

Underneath that relational approach is a constant understanding that our customers, our board and our elected officials are at the helm. Their needs, their funding and their support are why and how we exist as public transit agencies. The term "public service" only becomes an empty cliché when we don't conduct ourselves, at all levels of our organizations, as the public servants that we are. Those of us serving in the capacity of CEO should remember that we are paid staff of the local politicians. Even if they are not seated on our board, they represent local citizens who power our work. That citizen power stems from their transportation needs, as well as their valuable support at the ballot box and the payment of property taxes.

In addition to responsive service design, healthy governmental and community stakeholder relationships are nurtured by encouraging management personnel participation on area boards and committees. Being on a first-name basis with community leaders raises awareness of plans that could impact transit planning and operations. When people know you and trust you, communication thrives.

In addition to being ‘in the know', a second benefit of employee participation on community boards and projects is the reinforcement of an organization's positive reputation. Reputation is based on the singular actions taken by people in an organization.

A less formal approach, but one that is often most influential, are the one-to-one meetings with area leaders. Taking time to go to those weekend and evening receptions can be a pain, but in the long run, they serve as a pain ‘block'. The more we get to know people, the more we connect with them, the better the chances are that we will reduce or eliminate the need to "overcome" or "deal with" those who we serve. It does work — 34 years at this organization proves that it does!

Tulsa, Okla.
William Cartwright
General Manager/CEO
Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority

As an introduction to our area's public transit system, Tulsa Transit makes a point of taking new city councilors and other elected officials for a "get acquainted" bus ride soon after they come into office.

Not long ago, after making our introductions to a newly elected city councilor at the downtown station, a passenger who was waiting for a bus came over to me and began telling me how our service was too sparse and how we needed to add a lot more service if we expected to get people to ride the bus. Having the new city councilor standing next to me in a position to personally hear his constituent's complaints couldn't have been better choreographed.

Since I have been in the public transit field it has been my experience that most elected officials are generally in favor of the idea of public transit and genuinely believe in the benefits it provides to our citizens. The problem is that there are never enough resources to fund all the worthy government programs these officials are asked to fund.

In Tulsa we have no dedicated funding source for public transportation. This means we must compete with public safety, public works and all the other city departments for general fund dollars. Each year the city administration and the city council struggle to fund as many programs as possible with the tax revenues they have.

All of this makes public advocacy for public transportation very important. In our area the users of the public transit system are not politically active. When the gentleman at the downtown station came up to me and started complaining, I asked him "Who is your city councilor?"

"I don't know" was his response. "Where do you live," I asked. He told me where he lived and I informed him that his city councilor was standing right next to me. He then began to focus his transit-related questions on the new city councilor, who handled them quite well.

Whenever a public transit user asks me how we can improve our system I ask them the same questions I asked the man at the station. Almost without exception they do not know who their local elected representatives are, much less how to contact them. This lack of involvement in the political process by public transit users makes advocating for public transit funding all the more difficult.

To deal with these issues we have tried to be vigilant in our efforts to educate our customers on how the process works. Our staff members and board members know how to inform people on who to contact regarding increased local funding for public transportation.

Manager's Forum goes to the front lines of the transit industry to get feedback on different topics relevant to passenger transportation — and we want to hear from you! If you have an idea for discussion or would like to voice your opinion, please contact Leah Harnack at (920) 563-6388 Ext. 1535 or via email at leah.harnack@cygnusb2b.com.

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