Leverage Turns Red Light Green

High school
Subject: Government and civics
Time: One class period
Preparation: Have class view "COPS" segment in Leverage, Act 8, 26:41 on The American Promise videotape

The men and women of COPS found that it took a long time, a lot of practice, and some shrewd strategizing to find their leverage and make the bureaucracy work for them.

Have your class examine the following traffic light case involving a fictitious town, Middleton. Role-play a town meeting to discuss the traffic problem and find the leverage to solve it.

Problem: A state highway cuts through Middleton. To travel from the north side to the south, you have to cross this busy highway. There are stop signs there, but during rush hours the wait is long and local traffic gets backed up. In addition, there have been several serious accidents. The town decides to apply to the state for the installation of a traffic light.

Process: The town applies to the State Department of Transportation (DOT) for a traffic signal. The DOT agrees that the situation meets its criteria, but approval is determined by the amount of money the department receives from the state legislature. Sixty-four towns have submitted applications for traffic lights the same year as Middleton, but there are funds available for only 12 lights. After the DOT ranks by priority, Middleton is 16th on its list. Middleton will not be approved for this year. The townspeople feel confident that Middleton will be fourth on the list for the following year and will get the green light then.

Wrong! The DOT creates a new list every year, so there's no assurance that Middleton will be successful the next year.

Role-Play: The town calls a meeting, inviting the state highway director and a representative of the DOT. Also in attendance is a group of local residents who are opposed to the traffic light. This group isn't convinced that the light will solve the traffic problem. Role-play the meeting in class, assigning the different parts to your students. Include a local news reporter, an influential family with political ties to an incumbent senator, and opponents who feel that the light will bring too much growth and development to the town. Deliberate to develop a plan of action.

Conclusion: Explain to the class that this exercise is based on a true story. The real-life "Middleton" was 16th on the list and not likely to get a traffic signal. Laws, regulations, and processes are in place to deal with this issue, but politics -- the art of leverage -- is also a factor. After the town meeting, the influential family called their friend, an ex-senator, and asked him for help. The ex-senator called his old colleague, the state highway director, and used his political clout and connections to get Middleton moved up on the list. To expedite matters, the highway director offered Middleton a used, but good traffic signal. Middleton had a traffic signal within two months.

Evaluation: Was it fair that Middleton got a signal? What about the other towns on the list that didn't have political clout? What about the local residents who were opposed to the light? Contrast and discuss your class's town meeting plan of action (from the role-play) with the real outcome.

Mark Gale
Coupeville Middle and High School
Coupeville, Wash.

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