Changing the Name of a Town

Visitor Question: What are the steps in the process of changing the name of a town? Our town and its attending unincorporated areas sharing the same zip code and services are divided on the issue. It is a difficult topic of conversation and shows how polarized we are. Have you available information on best practices for moving forward on changing the name of a town in such a way that will bring people more together? My sense is that the process will take time and need careful, and caring strategies.

Editors Reply: Changing the name of a own is rare enough that we can't say that there are "best practices." Here are some observations.

As to the process, you should have your town's attorney draft a formal legal opinion about the necessary steps. Often it seems that the action is taken by a town council, but we have heard of one instance in which the mayor simply issued a proclamation. Perhaps even more often, this matter is put to a vote of the people.
Those are the surface actions, although in most instances, your state laws governing incorporation and disincorporation of municipalities will be the behind-the-scenes controlling factor. Listen to your attorney.

Now let's look at the controversy surrounding this town name change proposal. As you seem to sense, this requires patient dialogue. Those who want to change the name must advance one or more compelling reasons why the name change will be advantageous or will remove a stigma.

If proponents think it will improve the business climate, what evidence do they have that this is true? If they have not talked with any existing or potential businesses, how can they be sure of the positive economic development benefits?

Often those who oppose a name change are traditionalists or sometimes the long-time residents. They too must become more specific about why they think changing the name will represent a loss of history and recognition by others.

It's true that there are some financial costs of the name change, including costs to institutions, non-profits, and businesses, as well as the municipal government itself. So it is worth careful consideration of whether the name change will be worth all of those costs.

If you folks have not done so, you might consider sending a link to an online poll to your residents. If there is no operational town newsletter list, you might have to publicize what the link is. While any such poll would be enormously unscientific, it might give both sides an indication of public sentiment. Often people have opinions that they have not voiced.

Regardless of the method, we suggest some way for people who are not inclined to become involved in a public way to express themselves.

Next, you may want to arrange a series of dialogues in which it is well understood that no final decisions will be made. If there are reasonable people on both sides of the issues, the dialogue could begin with a couple of people for and two people against the name change explaining calmly their own thought process.

We suggest that instead of a formal public hearing format in the town council meeting place, try to arrange chairs in a circle so that everyone feels equal and therefore potentially heard. In many communities, Sunday afternoons may be a good time for this conversation. Don't let this group become too large; if there are more than about 30 (or even 20) people who want to participate, you need more than one dialogue session.

You would probably want to enlist a skilled facilitator for this session. Look at respected leaders from nearby towns or better yet, a nearby university.

If the dialogues don't produce anything except reinforced polarization along the lines of current opinions, then you are stuck with the decision makers either taking action or not taking action. If "decision makers" turns out to be the voters, based on what your attorney says, the town council may decide to move forward with it, in the hopes that a vote will settle the matter.

By the way, if your attorney's opinion says that a vote of the people is an acceptable way to decide the issue, we recommend that over a simple vote of the town council. The vote will bring a broader discussion, and as we have suggested above, allow quieter people a voice in the decision.

This leads us to one other element of your question, which is the surrounding unincorporated area that shares your zip code. These people will have no formal role either as voters or constituents of a council or mayor who will make the decision. So you will need to decide whether and how they are included in any dialogue sessions that you hold. If so, you need to be clear with these people that ultimately the decision belongs to others unless a consensus can be reached through sustained dialogue.

We share your speculation that this will need to be a long process, especially if it is a caring one that leads to cohesiveness rather than division. If you are in a position to do so, you may want to reassure folks that this will not be a quick decision and that their opinions and concrete worries will matter. If the process is moving quickly toward confrontation, try to slow things down if you want to contain the damage.

Your instincts about this are right on target, but unfortunately the process isn't frequent enough that we can offer you a tried and true method that will work in all instances.

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