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Podcast featuring Buster Nicholsonmanager of Public Sector Outreach and
Rob Bullington, Director of Communications, Virginia Municipal League

What is a municipal league and how does participation benefit towns and cities? In this episode, APU’s Buster Nicholson talks to Rob Bullington, Director of Communications for the Virginia Municipal League, about the support provided by municipal leagues. Learn how they provide guidance to local elected officials about their roles and responsibilities and keep local officials informed about what’s happening on a state and national level that may affect their municipality. Also learn the strategic role of how municipal leagues communicate with and educate their membership.

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Buster Nicholson: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host Buster Nicholson. This show is dedicated to highlighting issues facing communities from the perspective of those in local leadership positions.

Today, my guest is Rob Bullington, Director of Communications for the Virginia Municipal League. Rob joined the league staff in September of 2018. He has worked as a writer, editor, and instructor for 20 years. As a freelancer, he completed projects for clients, such as The Library of Congress, Publications International, and the Saylor Foundation.

He is also a founding member of the Virginia-based old time and bluegrass group, the Hackensaw Boys, and was a touring and recording member for 12 years. Rob is the editor of the League magazine, Virginia Town and City, and the newsletter VML eNews, and is the host of a podcast titled the VML Voice. Rob, welcome to the podcast and thank you for joining me.

Rob Bullington: Thanks Buster. It’s good to be here.

Buster Nicholson: Absolutely. So, you work for a municipal league and I think it’s safe to say that most people have no idea what that is. Can you give us a little background on municipal leagues and what they do?

Rob Bullington: Sure, I’ll be honest with you. The first thing that I did when I joined the Virginia Municipal League was to try to figure out whatever municipal league is at all. I went around asking different people, it’s relatively small staff, and got pretty much a different answer from everybody I talked to.

Start a public administration degree at American Military University.

If you talk to some of the policy folks, particularly those that deal with the financial policy stuff, they’ll tell you that a municipal league pretty much represents towns, and cities, and counties—where they have members that are counties—to make sure that the general assembly or the local state government doesn’t take away the locality’s ability to levy taxes or put financial burdens on a locality. Unfunded mandates, they call them, where a locality has to pony up some money without any extra money coming from the state.

If you go to some of the folks that, like myself, that do the communications and the education side of stuff, they’ll tell you that a municipal league is really in charge of making sure that elected officials like council members and mayors know what their responsibilities are and where the limits are of their jobs. For instance, when they would be in sort of violation of a Freedom of Information Act.

Education is something that municipal leagues, all municipal leagues, do for their members. Beyond that other people will tell you that the job of a municipal league is to make sure that the member localities are constantly informed of what’s happening at the state and national levels of anything that could possibly impact them. If a locality has a strong concern about something that they’ve been hearing about, to make sure that their voice is heard at the state and sometimes even the national level.

Buster Nicholson: So, you would see an advocate for the towns and cities?

Rob Bullington: Yes. That’s definitely a big part of it. Myself included, when I first joined the league, I thought it was silly and they’re like, “Hey, everybody goes to the polls and you vote and you have your state representatives and they look out for you. They look out for your little town or your city.”

[Podcast: Town Leaders Managing in Times of Crisis]

But that’s not always the case because there’s a lot of competing interests that feed into every decision that gets made at the state level. So, it’s really important that towns, particularly small towns and cities and counties, have a voice before the state government so that when those decisions are getting made, they have somebody in the room that can speak up on their behalf.

Buster Nicholson: I have a background as a town administrator and I worked for the towns and I can say from experience that it was a huge benefit for the town to be a member of the municipal league. Many times, as you had said, these issues would come up at the state legislature and we wouldn’t be there to represent the town. But it was nice to have those shared interests among the towns and the cities, and to be able to talk to the municipal league prior to the legislative session to let them know, “Hey, these are our concerns.”

Rob Bullington: As you know, Virginia is a Dillon Rule State, which is named after a 19th Century Iowa judge John F. Dillon, who long story short, really didn’t have much faith in local governments to make decisions responsibly. So, the Dillon Rule means that local governments of Virginia can exercise only those powers specifically granted by the legislature.

So, they have to routinely petition the general assembly for new powers, which makes it really hard to get things done in some cases. I remember when I came on board, we’re a nonprofit so we have a board, I asked our current president at that time who was a council member from a city in Southwest Virginia.

I said, “What’s the one thing you would change about Virginia if you could?” She said, “I’d get rid of the Dillon Rule.” Not even thinking about it.

Buster Nicholson: Yeah. The nice thing about the municipal league, too, is the pooling of resources. It’s huge. You have a town, a city that has limited resources. Especially the smaller ones and you can get lost in the shuffle, but there’s many ways that we could pool resources with the municipal league. How do they join together the benefits of having that ability to pool?

Rob Bullington: Okay, so right off the bat, we have a legislative committee and they get together throughout the year and identify those issues. They’re going to be coming before the general assembly that are of most concern or maybe of most benefit to localities. Through those meetings they develop basically the VML legislative program for that year.

That serves as the marching orders for our policy team when they go in to the general assembly session. That’s where the rubber meets the road right there. Serving on the legislative committee for the Virginia municipal league is really where the localities get to have a big say in how we conduct ourselves and how we look out for their interests that year.

Buster Nicholson: When you get down to the resident of the town, like I said at the beginning, they don’t know what a municipal league is, or does, or why would we have one. What are some of your thoughts on the benefits to a resident of your town being a member of this league?

Rob Bullington: Well, for one, it means that your town has a voice at the state, and in some cases the national level of government. I grew up in a little town in western Maryland and it never occurred to me that we would need to have something like that. Like I said, I just assumed people voted and that’s what you did. Then, four years later, you voted again and that’s how you had your voice.

But issues come up on a much more rapid basis than every four years. For instance, very briefly, I’ll say like there was a huge push in Virginia during this last general assembly session to legalize marijuana. Some people are strongly in favor, some people are strongly opposed. Everybody got their voices heard.

They may not agree with what the general assembly eventually wound up doing, but everybody got their voices heard in a much more effective manner than they would have if they had just hoped that the representative they elected two or four years ago would know how they felt about that issue. That probably wasn’t even on their radar at that time.

Buster Nicholson: That topic of the marijuana would be, I think, a very sticky issue when you have towns from different regions, different parts, heavier populated areas, more rural areas. Tell us a little bit more about that. That’s an interesting topic. How did that all pan out from your viewpoint?

Rob Bullington: I assured my executive director, my boss, that I would not get into policy issues on this thing, but I’ll only go so far as to say that we got a whole range of opinions on this. Very strong in favor of, very strong against. Those in favor really saw it as a revenue creator, they saw it as a social equity opportunity.

And those opposed were for all the reasons that you might suspect. It’s a huge change. It’s a taboo thing that’s now going to be brought into the light, so to speak. At the end of the day, I think it became obvious that things were going in a certain direction. What our role became was to make sure that it was to the benefit of as many of our members as possible.

That’s true of anything that I’ve seen our policy team work on. Even when they see that a certain piece of legislation maybe isn’t going to go the way they had hoped, that they’d been lobbying for they then very quickly—I’m working with some really wicked smart people here with really good connections. They’re really good at knowing when the moment comes when they need to pivot to, “Okay, this is going to happen. Let’s make it as less painful as possible. Let’s get creative with this and see if we can steer it in a direction that means that it’s not nearly as bad as it started out.”

I’ll be honest with you, I’m impressed by how often they achieve success that way. It’s fantastic work that they’re doing.

Buster Nicholson: Yeah. You do make a good point about some of these issues, policy issues. They are touchy subjects and I respect the league. I’ve loved working with them. I worked with them for seven years in the capacity of running a town. I did respect the fact that they would do what was best for the majority of members. It’s like being a town planner. No matter what decision you make, someone’s not going to be happy.

Rob Bullington: Yeah, and I’ll use the marijuana example last time here. At the very top of our legislative program for the past few years has been basically the byline local authority. That’s what we do. We seek to maintain and where possible expand local authority. So, in the cases of marijuana, it’s not our job to get into the details of whether or not it’s moral or not, or whether or not it’s a good revenue generator for a particular locality. What we’re really worried about is, if it’s going to happen, will the localities have as much authority as possible to do it the way that works for them?

Because at the end of the day that’s who knows the people in the town, right? It’s the local officials, not the people 32,000 feet up in Richmond.

Buster Nicholson: That is a great mission statement and mission for the VML, expanding local authority. It’s decentralized. You can stand on it. So, no matter what the subject is, you can always fall back to that and say, “Hey, we do this for the localities. We do this so they have a bigger say on this. Every move we make, that’s why we’re here.” I think that’s great to have a very simple but powerful mission in that.

Rob Bullington: Yeah, and it gives us something to fall back on too. Like, when in doubt you ask yourself that question and that answers it for you.

Buster Nicholson: That’s great. So, tell me a little bit about what you think the future of municipal leagues are. Where do you see them in five, 10, 20 years?

It’s funny because when we talk about the future anymore, that almost seems like a ridiculous exercise. Doesn’t it? Like 12, 15 months ago, if we’d all said, “Well, what do you think you’ll be doing a year from now?” I’m not so sure any of us would have been correct.

I think the future for municipal leagues is I think that like so many other organizations, particularly nonprofits that have people involved from a large geographic region, we discovered that although none of us particularly like virtual meetings, it works throughout the year, to really bring people together on a more regular basis.

For better or for worse, a lot of our members, council members, mayors, managers, and whatnot, if they weren’t before, they’re a lot better at doing virtual meetings now than they were before. I think a lot of them, some of our members, it’s an eight-hour drive for them to come to Richmond. To justify the expense of that and the time wasn’t exactly easy before and it’s going to be a little harder in the months to come as we sort of dig ourselves out of the economic impact of this pandemic.

So, I think discovering the virtual meeting environment altogether was painful, but it was probably a good harbinger of where things are going to be landing. Not that there won’t be an in-person event going forward. Not that people won’t still want to shake hands and give hugs when possible and exchange stories face to face. There’s nothing that can take the place of that, but for just getting the business done throughout the year, I think it’s opened up a whole new world of engagement for our members.

Personally, I’ve seen our team really pivot really well to doing that, to putting on more events, to having more meetings. I think our members really appreciate it. So, I see that being a big part of our future.

Buster Nicholson: Yeah, that’s real exciting for you, I’m sure, being in communications and that’s your job title. So, it gives you a project, so to speak of, to hone, to build, to expand. I do agree with you. It is a positive thing that came out of all this to be able to meet more in person virtually, of course, but face-to-face and having more opportunities to have those interactions.

Rob Bullington: I’ve been talking about some policy stuff though I don’t do policy. I don’t have a background in that. Luckily, like I said, I work with some really smart people that do, but the communication side of it for me means there’s more things to talk about. There’s more accomplishments to get the word out about. There’s more questions to be asked of our members because if they’re meeting more often, that means there’s more decisions that they leave on the table that needs to then get followed up on. Whether it’d be through a survey, through another meeting.

They might say, “Hey, you really should be doing more with the magazine to get the word out about X, Y, and Z.” So, there you go. I’ve got a magazine about X, Y, and Z coming out in a couple of months. The more you engage your members, the more content there is to communicate.

Buster Nicholson: I wanted to go back to a little bio we started with. You are somewhat of a Renaissance man, I would say. You’ve done all these different things, very interesting background. I, myself, I’m a musician. So, I just wanted to just touch on a little bit about what you were doing before you started with the Virginia Municipal League.

Rob Bullington: I was a professional cat herder and juggler, which is to say I was in a band and I was working three different freelance jobs. I had a child and a wife and another kid on the way. Yeah, so I was juggling and cat herding all at the same time, which is remarkable.

I don’t know how much time you spent in bands as a going enterprise, but unless you reach a certain level, they’re not really like big money-making ventures, but we were doing it full time for pennies on the dollar. We were booking ourselves into shows six months in advance. We had a booking agent, a manager, a couple of different record labels along the way, a bunch of touring.

Gosh, when the Hackensaw Boys started out, we swelled to 12 members right off the bat. So, our first tour was in a 1964 GMC motor coach somebody gave us. We went around the country in six weeks with 12 people and a photographer in the middle of the summer. That was right after I got done with graduate school, instead of going to get my degree, I got on the bus and took off. Then, after a while the first gig comes along and you’re thinking, “I got to make some money here.”

So, I started picking up freelance gigs that I could do while I was on the road writing for different groups. Back in those days, they were plentiful. You could go on Craigslist or through some connections and find plenty of work. So, I was doing pretty good doing that there for a while. It was nice because when I was home, I didn’t really have to work. I could take time to help my wife out and do the kids and whatnot, and then back on the road. But then, it just got tougher and tougher to be away from home, just emotionally and financially.

Then, everything fell apart in 2008 when the whole economy fell apart, all those freelancing gigs went away. So, pretty soon after that I got a full-time job here in Richmond and did that for about eight years, but was still doing the band as much as possible. I had sort of become the guy with the glasses in the band.

So, I was the one talking to the booking agent. I was the one organizing the tour. So, herding cats is where that comes in, because you want to talk about a group of people that are just impossible to get on the same page. Talk to a group of musicians. Nobody joins a band to get organized.

Buster Nicholson: No, especially the drummer. He’s usually difficult.

Rob Bullington: Yeah. We actually didn’t have a drummer because we were playing old time, bluegrass music. We had a guy who invented his own percussion deal. It was pretty awesome. He called it the charismo, and it was a piece of wood strapped to the front of his body and other piece of wood sticking out. He had 10 cans and bits of trash and string and wire and bells. He would dive into dumpsters every place we went and find just bits of stuff. He’d go through one and hit it with brushes on stage and it sounded fantastic. It was really, really good, but he ended up going through around 15, 20 of those things and they became works of art.

I think he sold a couple as installation pieces. When he bowed out, at some point while I was still in the band, a friend of his whom he’d grown up with took over and kept playing the same instrument. That was one of our hallmarks back in the day. It was, there was this guy with a bunch of trash strapped to him that could make it sound musical. He was serious about it and it was really good. A friend of mine still keeps the group going and they sound fantastic.

They still have somebody that plays that particular instrument in the group. If you listen to the recordings, that’s what you’re hearing. It’s not some professional piece of percussion equipment. It’s salvage materials.

Buster Nicholson: Yeah. Yeah. I’ve done that before, just to try to get a different sound. I took a crescent wrench and banged that on a woodblock when I was in the studio, just trying different things, and I respect that. You see these videos of this guy with these buckets on the side of a street, he’s got five gallon buckets and some trashcan lids and it sounds like Neil Peart.

Rob Bullington: Exactly.

Buster Nicholson: He’s tearing it up. So, I know what you mean. I love that kind of stuff because you can make music with anything. It really broadens your perspective.

Rob Bullington: I wonder how Neil Peart feels about that comment.

Buster Nicholson: I know.

Rob Bullington: Hopefully he’ll listen to the podcast. He’s like, “I spent $47,000 on my percussion gear and this guy’s comparing me to the guy with a Lowe’s bucket on the side of the street.”

Buster Nicholson: I don’t know, maybe he would be okay with it. Who knows? So, I want to touch base a little bit. We talked about Virginia Municipal League, but I want to just touch base on your job title, Director of Communications and what that entails.

Rob Bullington: Originally, I thought it meant that I would just be the editor of our magazine. We put out a glossy magazine 10 times a year called Virginia Town and City. It’s probably, if not the most fun, it’s one of the most fun things I do as part of my job. I love putting out the magazine. I get to interview different council members and mayors and community leaders throughout the state.

We try to develop each issue around a particular theme. So, that means I’m reaching out to a lot of subject matter experts. I’ve always enjoyed helping people craft their words. I know some people can’t stand writing. I often don’t enjoy writing for myself, but I really enjoy helping other people edit and hone their writing. So, for me, that’s a dream part of my job.

However, there’s much more to it than that, I found out. I’m also responsible for a weekly, and during the summer months we do it every other week, newsletter that goes out to our members. In that case, I’m sort of relying upon our policy folks, those wicked smart people I was telling you about earlier, to tell me what they’ve been up to, or what’s important going on either at the general assembly or with the various committees or studies that they’re sitting in on.

So, we get that out to our members on a regular basis. That’s really where a lot of the more crucial information flows that’s called eNews, which I didn’t come up with the name. It’s not the most creative, but it works.

On top of that, I actually started recently doing a podcast of my own called the VML Voice, which I do the whole thing soup to nuts. Do the recording, do the interviews, edit it. I drop in some music on the fly, put it all together and get it out. So, I’ve finished three of those so far. I just started doing it this year. So, that’s been a lot of fun. I really enjoy that.

It gives me a chance to use some of those old studio geek skills I picked up back in my band days and put them to work here. We do, like I said, events throughout the year. So, I’m doing a lot of helping people craft speeches and introductions. We have on staff a full-time graphic designer, who’s just fantastic.

So, if I need anything in terms of like developing a vision for an event that we’re putting together or come up with some content related to the podcast episode, he’s really good about coming up with some original artwork and we can get that out pretty quick.

One of the things that I found doing communications means that I sit in on a lot of meetings with people who are incredibly smart and informed about particular subject or subjects. Because I’m in communications, I’m much more of a generalist, which means I know a little bit about a lot of stuff.

So, unless I’m talking to other communications people, most of the time, I’m the biggest fool in the room because I have no idea what they’re talking about. I’m left to ask the stupid questions. I’m not afraid to do, as my colleagues have learned, but that’s part of the job. You got to be the one who’s willing to be the squeaky wheel who needs the grease in the room.

That’s been part of the role that I realized early on which is just going to be my lot. I was never going to know as much about environmental policy as two of the people on our staff and five of the people in the meeting that I’m sitting in on. So, it’s not even smart to try. All I can do is ask the stupid questions.

What’s really funny, and you’ve probably had this experience too from your past, is like, when you started asking people like that, the stupid questions, they get really enthusiastic about answering it.

Buster Nicholson: Right. Right.

Rob Bullington: They’re so used to talking about the nitty gritty little details of whatever the current issue is. They don’t really get much chance to talk about the high level stuff that got them inspired to begin with to get into that field.

Buster Nicholson: Yeah, and that’s always a good way for a give and take. It is like a Petri dish, that sort of environment. You’re sparking creativity when you’re asking those questions.

Rob Bullington: Yeah, and you’re giving people a chance to open up, to think about their particular area of expertise in a way that maybe they haven’t before. It’s really gratifying to work with folks on the magazine. A lot of times people will submit articles and I can’t help myself. I’ll go in there and I’ll rearrange stuff. I’ll change wordings. I’ll add transitional passages and I’ll send it back to them, my fingers crossed hoping that they aren’t so attached to their writing or their style that they’ll I have butchered it. I don’t think I’ve ever had anybody come back and say, “This is horrible.”

Nine times out of 10, they come back and say, “Thank you so much. You made me sound so much better than I did to begin with.” That makes it all worthwhile for me. That’s what I really like doing for folks.

Buster Nicholson: So, I’ve tuned into your podcast, the VML Voice, excellent. I love the production on it. I love the way that you started off a little bit of music in the background. I listened to the episode about Petersburg and it was fascinating to me. I didn’t know the background history of the town, but go ahead and plug for us the latest episode you have. What is that about?

Rob Bullington: Back on March 18th, I had an opportunity to have a conversation with the head attorney and the Director of the Virginia Department of Health’s Department of Environmental Health Services. It was a fascinating discussion because I hadn’t realized until I started looking into what they do. This is an agency that has jurisdiction or a say in everything from shellfish and sewage to enforcing health codes at restaurants. So, we spent a little bit of time talking through how all those things are connected.

Then, they teed me up ahead of time to let me know that they were the ones that were given the enforcement role when the governor started rolling out the executive orders a year ago. So, all of a sudden they had to go from worrying about shellfish to worrying about whether or not people were wearing masks in restaurants.

They had to set up a complaint mechanism for people to report incidences where businesses or organizations weren’t following the guidelines. They learned a lot in the past year. So, we had a fantastic conversation about all of that.

Then, towards the end of the episode they were able to give us an update on the current status of vaccinations and testing and all that with the pandemic. It was, for the most part, very good news. It was a really, really good conversation.

Buster Nicholson: Yeah. You never think about that. There’s somebody behind the scenes that is running this when these orders come out, somebody has to execute the executive order. There has to be people there that have never done this before. So, that is an interesting topic.

Rob Bullington: Yeah. In their point, and it was something that I think comes up time and time again, in this work in local governments and state governments. It’s about the relationships. They already had the relationships, not only with these businesses that needed to be enforcing these new executive orders, but they also had the relationships with the community.

People in the community knew who they were. So, it wasn’t out of the blue. It wasn’t like all of a sudden there was this new enforcement mechanism that nobody knew anything about or couldn’t trust.

They already built up good, strong connections with local governments, businesses, and communities. So, I think in that respect it was probably the best possible choice.

Buster Nicholson: That is really the main purpose of government, strong relationships with local communities, other governments. That’s how you get things done. That’s how you have a positive outcome, but that takes time to build those relationships. So, that’s a really good perspective. That asset, that groundwork that you lay every day as a public servant will really pay off in the time of need.

Rob Bullington: Absolutely. That’s VML’s tagline these days, better communities through sound government. The idea being that we work to create sound, fully functioning local governments, and through those communities are bettered. Communities are made stronger and they prosper.

I think that the last 12 to 15 months has been a huge reminder for everybody that government can do good things, and sometimes it’s the only entity that can do anything.

Buster Nicholson: Fantastic. Well, that’s excellent, Rob. Hey, thank you so much for joining me today and sharing your expertise and your perspective on these issues.

Rob Bullington: Absolutely, Buster. This was a lot of fun. I appreciate it.

Buster Nicholson: Yeah. Yeah. It was a lot of fun. Well, you take care.

Rob Bullington: Hey, you too, man.

By Buster Nicholson

Municipal leaders are often so overloaded with responsibilities that they miss opportunities. The key to recognizing opportunity is to stay acutely curious and inquisitive. Learn how to develop a sense of curiosity by deliberately engaging with information, people, and situations.