Thank you to the people who made their voices heard on the proposed changes to the Summit Water Distribution Company (SWDC). It appears that over 70% of people voted against changes that gave very broad power over water consumption to SWDC and would reduce the number of board members making decisions.
In my mind, this is another data point that highlights the changing ways in which voters in our community make decisions. If our leaders aren’t paying attention to what is happening, it’s time.
First came the Park City School District bond election in 2015. The school bond was defeated and the school board lashed out at the “uninformed voter.” They went to such lengths that they hired a research company to prove the board was right. Next came the South Summit School District bond. It was defeated too. This, despite the fact that many people would agree South Summit Schools are fairly crowded.
Most recently came the aforementioned Summit Water Distribution Company vote. I have to imagine that 10 years ago the board’s changes would have passed with flying colors. No one would have even know it was going on.
What we are learning is that today isn’t yesterday. Yes, something as arcane as changes to the bylaws of a local water company are questioned and defeated.
Why is it happening? I believe there are a number of factors converging that change the way decisions are made by the Park City area public.
It begins with community members’ interactions with employees of an organization. Those everyday actions appear to be shaping public opinion of the entire organization. In the case of Summit Water, the Park Rag received a number of phone calls describing the arrogance of SWDC employees. We’ve already reported about our neighbor’s interaction with a SWDC employee who told him he better get rid of his grass because they were going to cut back his water. We heard from one person who was told they had no right to use their water outside. When the person asked SWDC how they can keep their trees alive, apparently the response was that they could probably “spritz” them every once in a while but if they got caught they’d be fined. I had an experience where a representative from SWDC was walking the streets marking water mains in each persons’ property. When after two minutes he was frustrated that he couldn’t find the main, he yelled at me and told me that I had better find it or I would have to pay someone to come out and find it for me. It turned out he was just looking in the wrong place.
These every day interactions shape peoples’ feelings about the company and their trustworthiness. When you hear multiple stories that paint a negative light, it highlights a problem with either the culture or the leadership. Those feelings carry over into decisions like whether you should support the water company being able to restrict water to encourage conservation or whether you are Ok with the number of board members being reduced. If you love and trust the organization, you’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that they’ll do the right thing. If you don’t trust the leadership or the entire organization, you’ll question everything, and you won’t give them the rope to hang you with.
There are other examples of that. On the failed Park city School bond, there were pre-bond public meetings. Early-on, there were three meetings at the school district offices with members of the community. The first meeting didn’t go great, so the second and third meetings were stacked with teachers to make it more orderly. During the meetings the goal was to decide where our schools would go. Better put, the school district appeared to have already decided where they wanted the buildings to go, so they crafted meetings to have the public agree with them. They did this by breaking the attendees into six tables, each with a school board or master planning person at a table to drive the conversation. They then created maps of the Basin and little stickers of schools. Each group was able to select where they would put their schools. They could put the stickers anywhere in the Basin they wanted as long as it was at Ecker Hill or the Kearns Campus. Not surprisingly, five of the six groups came up with essentially the same plan — the plan that had been devised for them. The only group who did something else, was led by Terri Orr, who challenged the assumptions and put some schools on the west side of Highway 40, across from Home Depot.
The above sounds more conniving than it probably was. It’s likely the school board and master planning committee knew what they wanted and were trying to find a way to get public buy-in. To the outsider who observes it, though, it starts to shape your view that the powers that be are trying to manipulate the public. That then makes you question everything going forward. So, when the final survey was done on why the Park City School District Bond failed, it told a story of uninformed voters. There’s probably some truth to that. However, informed or not, if the public doesn’t trust you, they aren’t going to vote for you.
A more recent example is a school dual-immersion introduction meeting held last week. I wasn’t there but heard from many community members that it was confusing and didn’t paint the process in a good light. Is that one meeting going to doom the next school bond. No but it does once again shape the public’s view of the organization. Much like if when you check into the hotel and the front desk clerk is a jerk, you start to get a negative opinion. The opinion can either be confirmed or reversed throughout your stay by other employees at the hotel. That opinion, sometimes shaped over years and hundreds of interactions, will alter how people process information, change the way they make decisions, and impact the way they vote.
What has also changed is the way people share those feelings about an organization. In years past, people gossiped at Rotary or maybe wrote a letter to the Park Record. Today people post information to Facebook and Next Door. The reach is immediate and wide. I feel confident in saying that Next Door has become more influential in shaping the public’s opinion than the Park Record. Yes, there are crazy posts out there. However, the information is often useful. Also, the discussion between residents often proves more useful.
Our local governments aren’t blind to this fact. You’ve probably seen the influx of the “community-relations-specialists” into our government positions in the past few years. One of their jobs is to help shape public opinion about their respective organizations.They do this in traditional ways by making sure the Park Record and KPCW have information from their organization’s point of view. They also try to use Facebook, Twitter, and in some cases Next Door to spread information. Their use of these new tools, though, isn’t as useful in forming public opinion. That’s largely because they are one person and a naturally-biased source. Again, they are doing their job, but it’s just not as effective as organic information coming from citizens.
This leads to outcomes like we saw with the Park City School Bond and SWDC vote. It’s also likely to impact any future vote over Treasure.
So, how do our local organizations adapt to ensure their best chance of receiving funding or have decisions go their way?
It’s hard to prescribe one answer for everyone. What I would say is that it begins with culture. Culture leads to having the best people in individual roles. Culture prescribes a way of an organization interacting with people.
If ultimately our local organizations can instill a culture that of trust, through hundreds of tiny interactions, we-the-public are likely to vote for their plans. It has to be real. It has to be from the heart. There can’t be an ounce of artificial nature in it.
If they can’t do that, we’ll likely continue to see failure after failure.
While there are exceptions, we believe a number of our local organizations have a long way to go to earn the public’s trust. Without, they are going to be grasping for reasons their funding plans fail… when the real answer is they need to look in the mirror.
We truly hope they figure it out. We do have a lot of needs in the Park City area. Ultimately, it’s up to our local organizations to make changes that encourage people to both trust and fund them.