How Not to Get People to Trust You

This column brought to you by the majority leader of the Albany County Legislature and the proposed chair of the newly approved Albany County Land Bank’s board, via the question and answer session held Monday morning on the land bank bill that was passed Monday night.

Step 1: As majority leader, kill a bill to create an Albany County Land Bank that had been in development for many months with substantial public input, passed through three committees, and with the active participation of many community leaders. Thirteen months later, reveal your own land bank bill and then declare the topic of vacant properties so suddenly urgent that your bill doesn’t need to go through any committees or its own public comment or engagement process and declare that it must be voted on within a week of anyone getting a look at it at all.

Step 2: In that bill, do not lay out any process for picking the land bank board, as required by state law, just name who it will be. Even name the chair, even though state law says the board must pick its own officers. Describe the resident advisory committee much like a ladies’ auxiliary: its role is to be advised, and to be an “ambassador” for the land bank. Say nothing about it having a role in advising, recommending, or god forbid, making decisions. (Credit where credit is due: the language about the resident advisory committee was improved in response to feedback at the Q&A session before passage.)

Step 3: Hold a meeting the morning of the vote to take questions. Do not directly alert or advise people whom you have met with about the land bank in the past of this meeting. Absolutely refuse to offer any reasons for your actions as taken under step 1. (Later tell a newspaper reporter you were trying to depoliticize the board . . .  by having all the seats picked by you.) Make your volunteer, not-yet-elected board chair do all the talking and take all the heat.

Step 4: As presumptive board chair, insist that in a year, once it’s all up and running, then you’ll add community representation to the board and listen to and involve the advocates and community members who’ve been discussing this for years. Of course. Why wouldn’t you?

Step 4a: Decline to ask the bill sponsor to put anything about step 4 in writing.

Step 5: Attempt to distract from the conversation about inclusion in the process and board structure by declaring that specific acquisition and disposition policies should not be in the enabling legislation (true, but no one had said they should be), or that boards made of all elected officials are too bureaucratic to function (quite possibly also true, but no one had mentioned such a structure).

Step 6: Make sure to show your assumptions about low-income people by referring to making taxpayers out of people by making them homeowners and assuming that participants in Youthbuild are seeking skills to let them leave their communities.

Step 7: Warningly “joke” with someone about to speak that he should remember your organization donated land to his organization.

Step 8: Respond to the many articulate comments about the importance of representation from actual residents of high-vacancy areas with their particular knowledge of conditions and specific buildings by asserting that because you grew up in the projects on the Lower East Side and have family connections to African-Americans that you understand “as much as any Caucasian man can” what life is like now for people in high-vacancy, predominately people of color neighborhoods in this county.

Step 9: Dismiss much of the literature about neighborhood change by implying that large-scale development projects are necessary to be transformative, that they are always transformative, and always in a good way. (Ignore the interesting question of whether it’s a conflict of interest that most of the local organizations interested in doing large-scale development projects in high-vacancy areas are sitting on the land bank’s decision making board.)

Step 10: Repeat “You just have to trust us” a lot.

Step 11: Act offended and baffled that people might not trust you.

At the end of the day, having a land bank is still likely to be a good thing. In fact, everyone who spoke at the Q&A session still supported having one. The initial board members do have both a major commitment to the communities in question and much valuable expertise to bring to bear, and so did the people in that audience. Together we could be a powerhouse. I think those presenting would have been surprised by the power of non-defensive explanation and acknowledgement of the places where their process was in fact not ideal, if they had tried it.

In the best light, some of the above problems could be tone deafness or tender egos more than a lack of commitment to doing it right. But even if so, it still needs addressing to get the land bank the confidence and cooperation it’s going to need to be successful.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Feb. 13, 2014.)

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