Avoiding A Rural Public Relations Nightmare

Deciding what to do with trash is a priority for all communities. Government regulations, especially the Re-source Conservation and Recov-ery Act (RCRA) and Subtitle D, have brought profound changes in how we deal with our garbage.

The public has become at-tuned to waste issues, both intrigued by urban legends like the garbage barge and spurred by local and national grassroots movements to be less wasteful. "Reduce, reuse and recycle" has become the mantra of responsible citizens in major population centers like New York City, Los Angeles and Baltimore.

While this activity was raging in large towns and cities, small, rural communities, especially those in the arid West, largely ignored the furor. Nobody there immediately saw the connection between public education and high tech services. Remote locations with long distances be-tween population centers didn't seem to encourage any real change from the open pit, unregulated city dumps.

The National Guard, local road department or a similar organization helped little towns by digging disposal pits and covering them after they filled up.

Some towns fenced and operated their dumps according to local health department mandates that were fairly effective, but most sites continued to be litter makers and eyesores. Few people cared, as long as the dump was out of town and no-body could smell it.

This situation couldn't last, though. Big city residents brought their waste management perspectives to small towns where waste reduction programs were not as well-established.

Growth problems, including potential groundwater pollution and increased citizen concerns, forced many local governments to take action.

City council members and county commissioners found themselves paying for information their constituents rejected. Disagreements divided communities; local elections became ejection chutes for politicians who had been in public service for decades.

Simply put, rural communities needed high-tech solutions, but had low-level funding. This situation demanded cooperation between citizens and local governments - a difficult task for rural communities. Traditionally, the positions of mayor, council members and commissioners have been held by unpaid, hard-working, selfless leaders who were elected and then largely ignored by their constituents. However, when these rural, Western communities' solid waste issues loomed large, officials knew they had to actively involve a far-flung, and sometimes indifferent, public.

They had to find a way to let residents know that they had to step up their participation in managing solid waste.

The "not-in-my-backyard" mindset is obvious in the rural West, and the perception of landfills as "dumps" is difficult to change. Throughout the process, however, good science must be the basis for public utility projects, and that information must be presented in a format people can understand.

One City's Story One small, Western city is currently in the midst of a nightmare which, unfortunately, it shares with other similar communities. This city thought it was doing everything right. In fact, the city manager and council prided themselves on their political savvy and commitment to "environmentally-friendly" tactics.

Initially, they held a public meeting to discuss the necessity for siting a new landfill. There was no discussion of alternatives, but the city was confident that its residents would support locating a new site, based on the voiced dissatisfaction with the traffic that traversed through town enroute to the existing landfill.

Unfortunately, a specific site was selected without the community's direct participation - an oversight that proved disastrous.

After months of consulting and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, the mandatory 30-day review period began.

A few people who generally opposed a landfill distributed leaflets and cartoons depicting the wanton pollution and ground water poisoning they believed would be the inevitable result of the new facility. Then, hundreds of calls and written responses poured into the county seat.

The first public meeting was boisterous, but the hastily-convened second one was worse. Community factions quickly polarized into warring parties, and nobody seemed to want compromise. The political ramifications were stinging: The city manager was forced to resign, and three councilmen faced recall initiatives. In the end, four good men who gave their best found that wasn't good enough.

The city has put the question on the ballot for June 1997 and now must decide whether to scrap the current site (which is not bad, but will need more study), to undertake a concentrated and expensive public education campaign to bolster support or to build a transfer station and haul waste to a regional landfill.

What could this community have done to avoid its nightmare? Remem-ber, it followed established procedures to provide necessary utilities. It requested statements of qualifications from engineers in the region and held competitive negotiations with the top candidates. The problem wasn't with the selected consultant, nor was it with the process' legality.

So, why the fuss? The city failed to assess its constituents' preferences in an accurate and timely manner. Additionally, it did not provide a for-um for residents to express their concerns and learn details. Heading off a problem before it begins is always simpler than fixing it.

Using this rural city's experiences, the following step-by-step analysis highlights public relations tactics that can circumvent such problems cost-effectively.

Four Steps To Siting Success 1As soon as the city selects a consultant, it should hold "scoping" meetings, which consists of the city council, city manager and the consulting engineer who would discuss possible alternatives in a public forum.

Advertise this meeting well in both the local paper and on high-visibility bulletin boards. Encourage residents to submit written comments and to volunteer for an ad hoc citizen's advisory committee.

2After the meeting and while the consultant investigates alternatives, the city should consider the volunteers' backgrounds and solicit others to comprise a six- or seven- member committee.

This group will be crucial to the success of such an environmentally-sensitive project.

Ideally, the consultant would have the capability to help the city select members who represented various points of view but who were capable of compromising.

3 Once the waste disposal choices are narrowed down to economically feasible scenarios, the city should conduct polls to determine the public's preferences and concerns. The consultant would summarize the alternatives under consideration in an understandable fashion and develop a questionnaire for the polling process.

Following the poll, the advisory committee would provide the core group to do the "leg work" under the direction of a knowledgeable person. In addition to polls, focus groups should be formed in particular neighborhoods to gain grassroots input.

These groups would be headed by local leaders - such as scout masters, clergy and business people - and one of the consultants. Here, the public can learn the science behind each alternative.

4 After the polls and focus groups, a carefully-organized, open public meeting should be held to air out continuing issues. This meeting should be conducted by either the consultant or a knowledgeable city employee in conjunction with the consultant's guidance.

The city studies the meeting's results to select the alternative it feels best represents a consensus. After making its siting decision, the city should publish the results, including a clear description of why it chose a particular site.

Note that these four steps will take place before a word was written on the Permit to Operate Application. The city in the earlier example should never have waited until the mandatory 30-day comment period for its first public hearing.

Education Matters The public education process isn't difficult, but it takes time and resources, and it can't be done halfheartedly. Too many cash-poor local governments think any literate person can lead a public meeting and come up with intelligent, persuasive articles and flyers explaining a project. Although they know that engineering designs can only be conducted by qualified, experienced professionals, they must understand that a similar level of talent and expertise must be brought to a public education program, especially if disagreements arise.

"Mary from the city clerk's office" or volunteers from the local high school are no more capable of explaining a new landfill than they would be able to design and permit the project. Cooperation among businesses, non-profits, public agencies and the general population only can be achieved through well-conceived public education programs tied to engineering expertise.

Rural, arid communities, through their elected officials and public employees, can pull together to solve common problems. They're turning to flexible, responsive organizations, and they're banding together with like-minded communities. Most of all, they're providing opportunities for grassroots involvement, because they recognize that citizens must be full partners in any process that impacts the environment - especially when they are trying to change the term "dump" to "sanitary landfill."

Corrie Lynne Player is president of Tahoma Companies Inc., Cedar City, Utah.