My first clean-water-related job was with a metro agency looking to win public acceptance for its biosolids land application program, which had run into opposition in some outlying communities where farmers were using the material.
When the agency embarked on a public participation program to get citizens’ feedback and suggestions on the program, the local newspaper responded with an editorial cartoon showing a sewer pipe labeled as the agency’s “public relations campaign,” dumping black goo on a hapless man labeled “taxpayers.” The caption read: “The sweet smell of boondoggle.”
The accompanying editorial went on about how the agency shouldn’t be spending tax money to “polish its image.” First of all, that’s not what the public participation program did. And second, what’s inherently wrong with a public agency going out to the public it serves and telling its story?
I often hear the argument that it’s wrong for public entities to engage in “public relations” and “marketing” — that when discussing their projects and initiatives, it should be “just the facts.” Don’t be an advocate. Just lay out the data and let the public decide. To that I somewhat impolitely say, “Baloney.”
Need to believe
Consider a school district putting forth a referendum to build a new school. To hear certain radio talk show hosts tell it, the only “fact” that matters is that the school board is trying to raise people’s taxes. What about the benefits of the new building? Like replacing an antiquated school with one that is wired for technology, more energy efficient, cleaner, better lit, more comfortable, and more conducive to learning?
What is wrong with the school board, administration and staff advocating what they believe is best for the institution they are sworn to serve? Doing so is in fact part of their jobs, or ought to be.
Now, should they hide information? Sugar-coat inconvenient facts? Mislead? Of course not. But they should be free to make the case that the building project is needed, based on the information at hand. The public then has the right to disagree, and say no — that’s democracy. But the public officials should feel no obligation to be passive, or neutral, about what they propose. How is it any different for clean-water agencies?
And that brings us to this month’s issue of TPO. A couple of stories are pertinent. First, there’s the DeSoto County (Miss.) Regional Utility Authority, where employees Judy Marshall and Kelly Bowles have created displays that help them go to public events and teach school children and adults about the importance of wastewater treatment. Is that a wasteful exercise in “image polishing”?
How about the utilities department in Pompano Beach, Fla.? They have hired (horror of horrors!) a public relations agency to help market reclaimed wastewater to residential customers for lawn irrigation. They have banners, brochures, a website, and everything. Is that an abuse of ratepayers’ money?
And then, looking back two months, to November’s issue, there’s Ralph Martini, public works director in Heyburn, Idaho. He went door-to-door in his community of 2,900 to explain the need for a major wastewater treatment plant upgrade and the large rate increase that went with it. Should he hang his head in guilt and shame for his deeds?
My answers to these three questions are: No, no, and a thousand times no.
Time to speak up
Now is exactly the wrong time to be timid about supporting clean-water plants and infrastructure. Public investment is on the chopping block like never before. If the people in the industry don’t speak up for the facilities that keep our rivers and lakes clean, then exactly who will?
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As Marshall explained about her agency’s outreach program: “Wastewater is not exciting, except maybe to us. But it’s critical to our community, and we’re our only cheerleaders.” So must everyone in the industry be.
With a megaphone and pom-poms? Likely not. But with conviction, energy, and unrestrained enthusiasm? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.
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