CHICAGO — 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.
Important as the federal elections are, though, your drycleaning business operations will likely be impacted more profoundly 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, 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 dry cleaner has been changed to a one-way conduit—in a direction not favorable to your customer pool.
Business ambitions 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,” says Hadley. “Then they can run into problems with a requirement to preserve structural elements or utilize certain themes or colors.”
Business-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 these areas, Hadley points out, 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 the Small Business Survival Guide from Adams Press. “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,” says Pfeiffer. 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,” says Pfeiffer. 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.”
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 council person 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,” says Bocskor. “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 spokesperson 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 back-scratching,” says Ennico. “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 the process described for as many politicians as you like, your time is limited so you will need to be selective.
“Find out who the powerful people are,” suggests Ennico. “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.
Check back Thursday for the conclusion!