President Ronald Reagan warned Americans to "trust but verify." There is no better advice when dealing with federal, state and local government officials. As director of the Property Rights Network for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, I am in frequent contact with landowners throughout the state who have learned the hard way that a government official's word cannot always be trusted.
Often, a government official will make a verbal promise or commitment, only to renege on the commitment or deny it was ever made. This may happen for several reasons — government officials' decisions are commonly overridden by their supervisors, or they may change their position when other interested parties object. Lines of clear authority and delegated decision-making are often not clear in government bureaucracies. Risk-taking by government employees is discouraged and even punished in many instances, causing government employees to "reconsider" their prior commitments.
Landowners dealing with government officials would be wise to consider three priorities — document, document and document. This advice sounds simple, but unfortunately, most landowners do not take the time to create a paper trail regarding their dealings with government regulators. The following steps should be taken:
- Take detailed notes of all communications with regulators, including phone conversations and site visits.
- Transcribe notes into a letter and include your understanding of any agreements or commitments on the part of the government as well as any commitments you made. Be sure to include any dates agreed to.
- Send letters by registered mail to appropriate government officials and request a response in a reasonable time frame (two weeks is common).
- Keep all correspondence professional, factual and to the point. Emotional or sarcastic letters are not helpful.
Creating a paper trail may seem time-consuming, but it is essential. Verbal commitments from government officials are worthless when a dispute emerges. If the issue cannot be mutually resolved and litigation becomes necessary, it becomes your word against a government official's word. Detailed documentation with timelines is very important. Frequently, government officials demand quick action on the part of the landowner, but fail to act in a timely manner when fulfilling their own side of the deal.
I'm often asked when to elevate an issue or make a legislator aware of the problem. There is no simple answer. It is largely a judgment call. Generally, I recommend that you give government officials a reasonable opportunity to work with you to find a mutually agreeable solution. However, it is not in a landowner's best interest to let a private property rights issue drag on indefinitely. If a follow up letter to the agency does not result in action on the part of the bureaucracy, it is probably time to elevate the issue. It is usually easier to get a meeting with a top-level local government official than it is with a high-level official at a state or federal agency. If your issue requires resolution at the state or federal level, you may have to enlist the support of your legislator or congressman to get the attention of the bureaucracy. Often, aggrieved landowners are hesitant to elevate issues for fear of reprisal. Although there is always a risk of retaliation from a government official who does not like someone going over their head, it may be the only option available in order to get your concerns heard.
Although dealing with the bureaucracy is seldom easy, your chances for a successful outcome are greatly increased if you are diligent in documenting all your dealings with government officials. What may seem like a lot of work at the time can pay off later.
Russ Harding is director of the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.