Power, Authority, and Change in Dalton Township

Power and authority are related and interactive concepts, but they can also be differentiated.The best way to explore this topic is to first go through definitions and historical examples from politics and business. Then to dive more extensively into how these concepts apply to the role of a change agent in a local municipality.

The complex interrelationship of power and authority is demonstrated well by the life and career of Eleanor Roosevelt. Becoming prominent as the wife of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, she had no official authority. Yet, she wielded a great deal of power both during and after her husband's life.

Power is a person's ability to influence another's behavior because of dependency. Dependency is the need to rely on another for something. (Judge, et al, 2016, pg. 368) While Eleanor wielded no formal power within an organizational structure with the ability to reward or punish others, she developed personal power through public speaking and popular writing. Because FDR was disabled Eleanor traveled for him, and held speaking engagements in his stead. She also wrote a weekly newspaper column. She became viewed as an expert on political matters and a person to admire. (Caroli, 2021)

Such personal power can be highly influential in and of itself. It can also lead to a formal position of authority. For instance, after President Roosevelt's death Eleanor was appointed by President Truman as a United Nations delegate. She was selected to chair the Commission on Human Rights while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was being created. Such a position sounds like it carries authority, but formal authority is very limited. There were delegates from over a dozen countries on the commission, including the USSR, and she had no formal authority over them other than procedural processes in meetings. Yet, she was able to use personal power to keep the process moving forward. This struggle and interplay of power and authority is demonstrated well in the meeting minutes, and is a testament to her skill in wielding power with little formal authority. (Commission on Human Rights, 1947)

This struggle and shifting in power and authority occurs in business organizations as well. A great example is Blockbuster. John Antioco was brought in as CEO in 1997 to fix some problems in the company, and he grew revenue from 3 billion per year to 6 billion in 2003. With Netflix gaining traction and technology changes looming, Antioco started shifting Blockbuster to an online model in 2004. That same year Carl Icahn bought a large amount of stock in the company. Over the next couple of years there was a proxy fight for control of the company board, and therefore the direction, leadership, and control of the company. Icahn won and Antioco left in 2007. Three years later Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy. (Antioco, 2011)

Here we can also see that the situation is not simple. Antioco was the current CEO of the company, therefore he had both power and authority. Icahn gained authority by buying shares. He used his name and influence to gain more power. The shared power and authority allowed him to get proxy board members. This gave him more authority and decision making power. At each step Antioco lost power, until eventually he was removed from authority.

Here we've seen two examples, one in the realm of politics and one in the business world. Eleanor Roosevelt was able to wield power by associating with authority from her husband holding public office, by dealing directly with the public through public speaking and writing, by being seen as an expert, by being admired for the controversial positions that she took and initiatives that she led, by holding and promoting the moral high ground, and by being awarded leadership titles. This allowed her followers to feel that they were helping to achieve something of importance through her, thus strengthening the number and enthusiasm of her supporters. At the same time it made her opponents hesitant to take on a woman who had won public appeals time and again, and thus weakened her resistors. This is how someone without formal authority can gain power.

Carl Icahn shows a different path to power. By buying shares he was able to gain some authority. But that alone was not enough. He needed the shareholder votes to gain the positions on the board. His reputation for past achievements in taking over companies helped immensely in gaining positions on the board. And that gave him the authority, by proxy, that he needed to wield enough power to make enormous changes in the organization. Even though Antioco was successfully leading Blockbuster through challenging changes in the industry, Icahn was able to take the moral high ground and call into question whether or not Antioco should be getting his contractural bonus.

Antioco on the other hand demonstrates losing power while holding authority. He wasn't able to generate enough general public support, he wasn't able to have the right personal connections in the hedge funds that owned shares in the company, or among enough of the board members, and he wasn't able to take the moral high ground in the struggle for control.

Roosevelt, Icahn, and Antioco all demonstrate the complex nature of power and authority. How one changes and shifts the other. How organizations rise, change, and fall. All lessons that apply equally well in the case of small municipalities.

In May of 2019 I started writing about problems in my local government, Dalton Township, a 36 square mile area of 9,400 people in the U.S. state of Michigan. (Martin, 2019) Over the next nine months my articles gained a local following, fomenting a growing dissent. Seeing the need for a change agent, thinking that it should be in an elected position, and seeing little hope for other candidates, I decided to run for office. Another nine months and I had won the top elected office in the township.

Having run an 18 month campaign against the township, I was now faced with the task of taking charge and changing the direction of the organization for the better. Because I didn't actively interact with the township government before beginning my campaign against their policies I didn't know the informal, or even the formal, relational structures. During my campaign it was difficult to learn much about the nature of the power and authority in the organization. Thus, most of it had to be taken in once gaining official office.

In a local municipality of this sort there are multiple parts of the organization that have to be assessed. Because of the relatively small nature of the organization and certain time constraints, I selected and primarily relied on two of the potential interventions, interviews and studying documentation. (French, et al, 2006, pp. 155-160)

Within the office itself I focused on one-on-one interviews. Because of the stressful nature of the transition the previous supervisor had been yelling at people in the office for months that if I was elected I would fire everyone as soon as I was sworn in. This was a tense emotional situation. One of the first things that needed to be done was to tell everyone that this wasn't going to happen. One-on-ones also allowed me to get individual feedback from people on what they thought was going well and what needed to change in the organization. This is a useful method of learning your own role from subordinates. (Grove, 1996)

This is where power and authority along with formal and informal relations within the organization become complex. Luckily we are dealing with a small organization. The treasurer had been elected at the same time as me. He had no experience in a similar role and had previously threatened the ordinance enforcer. I had separate conversations with them and also attempted to get them to resolve their differences with mediocre results. The clerk had run unopposed in the election and had been in the role for a handful of years. The deputy clerk and deputy treasurer are appointed positions who are hired as administrative assistants. The zoning administrator is also a hired position. The tax assessor is a contracted position through the county. The building and other trade inspectors are independently contracted positions. Maintenance are hired positions, along with the entire fire department.

As far as I could tell, the fire department had already been running well. I gathered from my interviews that everyone just let the fire chief take care of that department and that had been working. Considering it best to focus on the areas I knew there were problems, I encouraged the fire chief to continue what he had been doing. I would come to trainings and interact with the firefighters, but not have one-on-one interviews with all of them.

The maintenance department had been going poorly. The previous supervisor had hired friends in the role, wouldn't allow them to purchase needed equipment, yelled at them, took them away from their jobs to do non-township related tasks, and generally disrupted their ability to work. This was confirmed in multiple interviews with individuals. I told them that things would change. I didn't want to micromanage them or learn all of the details of the job, that they could purchase needed equipment and manage their time in such a way that the needed tasks were completed.

The main focus with learning my own role was with the clerk, deputy clerk, deputy treasurer, and zoning administrator. These were the personnel that were able to guide me in the processes for completing my own necessary tasks, and to begin the change processes that I wanted to make. Without understanding these things it isn't even possible to assess my own power and authority within the organization and community.

Since I had written about some of the changes that I wanted to pursue I was able to discuss the necessary steps for starting to implement the changes. For instance, I wanted to video record and post the board meetings. The first couple of meetings were done informally while I prepared a resolution that I brought to the board and we passed. Also, I encountered immediate inquiries into the overly restrictive sign ordinances from businesses and churches, so we passed a motion to begin the review process.

This leads us to the situation with the boards. The Board of Trustees is seven elected positions. In the November 2020 election six of those positions changed people. There is a Planning Commission (PC) that is a large part of the legislative process for zoning laws which consists of seven people appointed by the supervisor and confirmed by the board. There is a five person Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) that is quasi-judicial. There is a three person Board of Review for tax exemptions, and a three person Construction Board of Appeals for building. I was able to obtain documents showing partially accurately who was on these boards, what their contact information was, and when their terms expired.

The PC and the ZBA are key organizations in the governance of the township, with the PC taking prominence in desired changes in the laws. Within my first few months of taking office three people's terms on the PC were finishing, and one on the ZBA. This is a key decision for a change agent, when to make a big change and when to avoid it. Large change makes people nervous. (Popovich, 1998, pg. 39)

Even if I had good interviews about the township going in a new direction there was a significant risk in keeping the same people in the same positions. Appointing them for three years means that if they do not change their voting tendencies then ordinance change will be stalled. To appoint them for less than three years would draw political and potentially legal scrutiny. Seeing that there's always some position coming available I decided to put new people in the positions on the Planning Commission, and to conduct exit interviews with the outgoing members. This I postulated would allow them the opportunity to truly express how they feel about me, the township, and the general situation with authenticity and sincerity. It would also clearly set the tone that things were changing. And, if the exit interview didn't go well then I knew I made a good decision in replacing them, and if the exit interview did go well, I could consider them the next time a position was open. All of these things were revealed to be true.

These changes shifted the entire direction and tone of the legislative process in Dalton Township and has resulted in a number of positive changes from the standpoint of becoming more business and property right friendly for the township. As this continues through my term in 2024 the business activity that we are already seeing will have a positive impact on the community for decades to come, while ongoing discussions around property right innovations could have larger consequences.

Such an aggressive approach as a change agent does come with costs and has taken a toll on me personally. It is true that, "You can only successfully navigate multiple existential changes if you are yourself a grounded person." (Carucci, 2018) Without understanding the power and authority in an organization, purposeful and controlled change is impossible. By understanding it we are able to better balance what must take priority to achieve the most desirable objectives, while keeping ourselves grounded and capable of causing positive change.

Power and authority have a complex relationship. They change each other and are the avenues through which a change agent acts by understanding the surface and underlying dynamics in an organization. One can gain power without authority, gain authority through power, and even lose power while in authority. When a change agent enters an organization determining these relations is a must. There are multiple different ways to do it. Personally, I have implemented assessment through one-on-one interviews and the study of documentation to determine necessary changes to the structure that have led to better outcomes in a local municipality through authority and power changes. These techniques should be considered as possible approaches in all organizational change initiatives.

Reference List

Antioco, John (2011) How I Did It: Blockbuster's Former CEO on Sparring with an Activist Shareholder. Harvard Business Review. Available at https://hbr.org/2011/04/how-i-did-it-blockbusters-former-ceo-on-sparring-with-an-activist-shareholder (accessed 17 January 2022)

Caroli, B. Boyd (2021) Eleanor Roosevelt. Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at https://www.britannica.com/biography/Eleanor-Roosevelt (accessed 17 January 2022)

Carucci, Ron (2018) 4 Ways To Face The Challenge Of Disruptive Change. Forbes. 12 February 2018. Available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/roncarucci/2018/02/12/4-ways-to-face-the-challenge-of-disruptive-change (accessed 17 January 2022)

Commission on Human Rights (1947) First Session, Summary Record of the Tenth Meeting. 1 February 1947 at 3:00 p.m. United Nations Economic and Social Council. Lake Success, New York. Available at https://undocs.org/en/E/CN.4/SR.10 (accessed 17 January 2022)

French WL, CH Bell & RA Zawacki (2006) Organization Development and Transformation: Managing Effective Change. Sixth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Grove, Andrew S (1996) Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company. New York: Doubleday.

Judge, T., Robbins, S., Campbell, T. (2016) Organizational behaviour. Pearson Education, Limited.

Martin, Jeffrey Alexander (2019) Fighting Local Government Corruption - Part 1 of ?. Available at http://www.jeffreyalexandermartin.com/2019/05/fighting-local-government-corruption.html (accessed 17 January 2022)

Popovich MG (1998) ‘Mastering the politics of change’. Creating High Performance Government Organizations. San Francisco CA: Jossey Bass.



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