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Meet a Millennial Mayor with a Mind for Citizen Engagement

November 6, 2014
Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry enjoys meeting his diverse constituency.

Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry has a diverse constituency to engage. More than 80 percent of the city’s 8,000 residents are non-white. More than 45 percent are foreign born. The median age is 29.   

In the 10 months since Terry has been mayor, he, along with the city council and the city staff, have implemented a number of initiatives designed to reach its young and diverse constituency, including events, participatory budgeting, social media and the traditional town hall. At age 31, this millennial mayor is keenly aware that you have to reach people where they are.   

“If the people are on the street, we are going to shut down the street and talk to them,” he said, referring to an upcoming street fair where the city will shut down one of its main commercial streets and have city staff engage residents while they mingle at a city festival. “If they are on the Internet, we are going to talk to them on the Internet or if they want to come to a council or a town hall, we will be there.”   

When it comes to citizen engagement Terry is pragmatic. “In Clarkston the ones who are more likely to come to town hall meetings are going to be the American born, typically more of the white residents and homeowners,” Terry explained. “At the street fair, we are going to have translators and be able to engage people who don’t speak English, we are going to be able to engage families, people who live in apartments, or who don’t drive or don’t have time to come to a town hall meeting after work.”   

Participatory Budgeting Clarkston Style   

Participatory budgeting started 25 years ago in Brazil and has spread to 1,000 other cities worldwide, including the U.S.   

“Participatory budgeting, or PB, is an idea where a small but not insignificant amount of money is carved out of the annual city budget and allotted for residents in Clarkston to decide how that money gets spent,” Terry explained. “While Clarkston is the only city in Georgia that I know of that is doing it, I imagine many cities here have done something similar.”   

Clarkston has added a twist to the PB process by creating resident committees that Terry says encourage people to develop a project list. “The residents are doing some of the homework for us.”   

The four committees—public safety, public arts, welcoming (which relates to Clarkston’s status as a refugee settlement community) and education will have until June 30, 2015 to develop a grassroots-based project list. Each committee will come before the city council and present their project ideas. Each committee will have $5,000 to fund one or more projects in 2015-2016. At least one city council person will be a chair or co-chair of each committee, ensuring that basic rules of order are followed.

“From that, there is a whole technique to get people to share their ideas,” Terry explained. “One wants to start off with there is no bad idea. From all these ideas, the committee discusses ‘what is the practical thing to do?’ The basic thing we are going to show folks in this process is that government has to be very practical. But being practical doesn’t mean being entrenched in the way things have always been done. There is a middle ground where you can be fiscally responsible and practical in the implementation of a project.   

One can bring in new ideas that haven’t been done before and try different things. In that sense, I think PB is a bit like a laboratory of government. You are talking about small projects with community impact in mind.”   

Terry spoke to a Chicago Alderman who runs a participatory budgeting process for his ward. “What he told me was that the biggest impact of these PB exercises is not necessarily the money that gets spent,” Terry said, “it is that you bring people out who aren’t ordinarily engaged.”   

The Social Mayor   

Terry also avidly uses social media to engage residents. “I’ve been using NextDoor, which is a free neighborhood social networking website that is geared more towards yard sales and neighborhood watch meetings,” he said.  

Terry uses NextDoor as a neighbor instead of in his official capacity as mayor—to spread information about upcoming city events and to be sure people have accurate information about city initiatives. “We have more than 300 active neighbors on NextDoor,” he said. “We have people who will post stuff and ask questions. Some of the threads go   
on for weeks. That has been really helpful.”   

Terry and the city also use popular social media websites Twitter and Facebook.   

“Between the city’s and my Facebook pages, we have half of Clarkston engaged,” he said. “I have learned because Facebook is now geared towards making money, they have changed their algorithms. So unless our residents subscribe to get the city’s notification alerts, they are not going to see our notifications unless we spend money on ads. I think the best part of Facebook ads for cities is that you can target it based on a city. I can reach 2,200 people with less than $50.”   

According to Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, two-thirds of all 18-24 year olds engage in some sort of social network-related political activity—that is a fact not lost on Terry, who has worked as a campaign and non-profit consultant.   

“The digital engagement is building some good rapport with young people,” he said. “Seventy-five percent of our population is under the age of 40 and the majority of that 75 percent is under the age of 18, so we have a very young population. In the future, I want them to vote but I also want them to help make Clarkston better.”   

Despite his various citizen engagement methods Terry says town hall meetings are still the most effective.   

“The in-person town halls are effective because there are a lot of really smart people in Clarkston who like to get deep into the issue,” he said. “I will say, ‘Here is an agenda; this is what I want to talk about. What do you want to talk about?’ When people feel upset or really want to share an idea that in-person meeting is the most powerful. They get the most feedback. They give an idea and others contribute to make the idea better. It allows people to see if he or she has a big lofty idea, here is what step-by-step it takes to get done.”   

Terry said in this day and age, civic engagement, in a variety of forms, is critical to a city’s success. 

“The old mentality is that we have a city council meeting once a month and we have a work session once a month and that is enough—that is all we need to do. For some communities that may be enough. If that is not good enough for some people then you have to find other ways to engage them. As people understand more about government, they will put more of their energy into it. They will be less antagonistic and say, ‘How can I help, what is my role?’ I am hoping what we are doing in citizen engagement will engender greater confidence in government.”