Par ticipation Guide: C it iz en L eg is lat o r
You’ve taken the Citizen Legislator Class and now take action with our free resources. Step off the sidelines and get in the game! In this Participation Guide we review: STEP 1: STEP 2: STEP 3: STEP 4: Turning Your Problem into a Constructive Solution Building Community Support Making a Respectful Proposal Sustaining Your Grassroots Effort
Getting Results on Your Issues as a Citizen Legislator
The first thing that you need to do is identify a problem. This shouldn’t be hard, as we typically have things we may wish were different, or complain to our friends about. Where you can stand apart is to come up with a solution to those problems. Remember, to identify a problem is to complain. But to identify a problem and offer a solution is to lead. Once you’ve got an idea as to how to fix the problem, you need to turn that solution into a constructive proposal that can be adopted by your governing body and turned into a law or policy. Your solution to a problem may not be implemented right away, if at all. However, you will get a better response following the process outlined in this Guide.
REFRESHERS: Take the free, video or online “Citizen Legislator” class as a review. thecitizenscampaign.com/classes Read Chapter 3 in The Citizens Manual for more detailed tips on making your proposal.
STEP 1: Turn that Problem into a Solution
You have two options moving forward. You can look for existing solutions that may work for your situation, or develop your own constructive solution.
Participation Guide: Citizen Legislator
Using existing resources: Download a “Ready to Adopt” model law from The Citizens Campaign. We have a Toolkit filled with model laws in areas of government reform, cost cutting and the environment that you can take to your governing body today. We are continually adding more models to expand your options. Use a best practice from another town in or even out of state to address a community issue. You can find one by searching the internet or filling out an OPRA request in another town where the policy or law exists to get a copy to present to your governing body. Find best practices from organizations that specialize in your issue. For example, Sustainable Jersey has a list of action items for any municipality to implement. Just go to sustainablejersey.com and click on the “Actions for Sustainable Communities” tab. Develop your own constructive proposal: Research past discussions and actions of the decisionmaking body (i.e., Town Council, Planning or Zoning Board, Environmental Commission) with respect to your issue. This can be done through an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request to your municipal clerk. Make sure your proposal is within the decisionmaking body’s authority. For example, a proposal to clean up a local park may be rejected if the park is owned by the county or state. You can check this with your municipal clerk, town administrator, or the League of Municipalities (www.njslom.org, 609-695-3481).
TIP: When making a records request to your municipal clerk, be as specific as possible. For example, request any 1) minutes of meetings where your issue was discussed, or 2) resolutions of the decision-making body to take action on the issue that were proposed or adopted, within the past 12 months.
Identify a funding source. If your proposal involves money, it is important to identify a funding source. Figure out: 1) whether the proposal fit into the current town budget or a future budget, or 2) if county, state, or federal grants exist that may fund your proposal. Remember, you can use your municipal clerk or a simple Internet search to find this out. Suggest an Ad Hoc Study Commission. For issues that do not have a clear, easy solution, propose that a task force or an appropriate group be created in order to discuss or study the issue and report back their recommendations to the Mayor and Council in a specified amount of time.
TIP: It’s best to focus on one proposal at a time and choose one that is less controversial and more likely to be an easy first win. This helps build a relationship with your town’s governing body, in case you want to ask them to make other improvements in the future.
STEP 2: Building Support within the Community
Once you have identified a problem, constructed a solution, and done all the necessary background research, now it is time to find support within the community. Build a coalition of supporters from the community. Remember, seeing your proposal be implemented into law or policy may take some time, so building a team is a good way to share the workload. We have seen success when just a handful of people decide to work together propose a constructive solution, so your group doesn’t have to be large. Find the “usual suspects” who already care about the issue. This can be residents who are writing letters to the editor in newspapers or blogging about the issue. It can be like-minded groups like community organizations or civic/neighborhood associations concerned about similar issues. You can also find such people by talking with neighbors, Internet searches and attending governing body meetings to see if anyone is bringing up your issue in public. Recruit those who may not know a lot about the issue, but are likely to be interested. The toughest part is finding people who are passionate about bettering their community, and have the time to work towards a solution. Once you find those people, educating them about the details of your proposal and its importance to the community will be easy. Reach out to the less-obvious places for community stakeholders, like business owners; church, synagogue or mosque leaders; parents involved in PTAs or attending school board meetings. For example, if you are trying to get a Contact us to find out who else in proposal adopted by your town for an anti-idling your area might be interested in campaign, you should try parent organizations, civic supporting your proposal: organizations, but also the schools that could disseminate information and local businesses where [email protected]
heavy idling might occur (like convenience stores). Designate leadership. It will be more effective and easier in the long run to assign people specific roles within the group. Let people pick the roles they want to fulfill, such as:
Public Speaker at the municipal meeting to present the proposal
Outreach Coordinator to recruit other citizens and groups to your coalition
Secretary to be an information distributor for communications within the group, etc. Use community opinion leaders to campaign for your issue: The local media can be a major player in gathering support for your issue. Both online and print media can be helpful. Find out which reporters cover your town in the local media outlets & send them a press release to let them know that you are proposing “X” at the next
Participation Guide: Citizen Legislator
council meeting. Contact Heather for a sample media release that you can send to local media outlets: (732) 548-9798 x1, [email protected]
Try to identify a sponsor on the governing body, who is part of the majority party and who can gain support from the other officials for your proposal. This can increase your chances of getting the proposal adopted. You may want to first present your proposal to members of a related board or commission before you present to the governing body to build support. For example, if you are proposing the town create a Green Team to work on specific sustainability initiatives, you may want to first get support from members of your Environmental Commission or Shade Tree Commission. Ask them to adopt a resolution in support of your proposal, or attend the public meeting where you plan to make your formal presentation, or call or email governing body members to express their support. Reach out to local public officials to make them aware and council members a copy of your proposal at least one week before your presentation can increase the chances of starting a dialogue with governing body members on the issue, and lessen the chances of them brushing you off at the public meeting by saying “We haven’t had a chance to review the matter…” The Citizens’ Campaign has a sample letter that you can send along with your proposal (ordinance) to each council member, the mayor, and the municipal attorney. of your intentions. Sending the mayor
TIP: Beware that if your subject is a controversial one, you may not want to give those opposed to your proposal a chance to shoot your idea down before you can make your case. In this situation, you may not want to alert the governing body before your presentation.
STEP 3: Making a Respectful Presentation
Now you’ve developed a constructive solution, gained support from within the community, media and opinion leaders, so it is time to bring your proposal to the appropriate governing body. There are a few things that will make your formal proposal more successful. Know the rules for citizen input at the public meeting. It may be as simple as looking on your municipal website or asking your municipal clerk for a copy of the rules. If they are not readily available for you, ask for the resolution establishing the rules governing citizen input at council meetings. These rules will contain: ■ the meeting times, dates & location ■ whether the public comment portion is at the beginning or end of the meeting ■ how long you have to speak ■ whether you need to sign up before the meeting begins, raise your hand, line up at microphone, etc.
The Sunshine Law gives you the right to: comment on 1) proposed ordinances before their adoption by your governing body, & 2) specific proposals made by the public to any decision-making body, and make a proposal at both the agenda/workshop meetings & regular meetings of your governing body. * Sometimes it is smarter to make a proposal at an agenda/workshop meeting, because it is at these meetings that you can ask for your ordinance to be put on the agenda for the upcoming regular public meeting of your governing body.
Arrive early to campaign for your issue. Introduce yourself to the governing body members & reporters. Let them know that you are planning to speak on “X” issue. You may want to ask a specific councilmember that you know will be favorable to your proposal, to make a formal motion for your proposal to be put on the agenda for a discussion at the next meeting. Bring copies of the model ordinance/proposal, a summary, and your prepared statement enough for each of the governing body members, municipal clerk and reporters. Reporters often have deadlines, so you may want to email or fax a copy of your statement & summary a day in advance. Make your respectful proposal during the public comment portion. Speak loudly & clearly and read your prepared statement explaining your proposal. Submit copies of your ordinance/proposal to your municipal clerk. Ask to formally be put on the agenda for a vote at the following meeting. This will ensure that a vote happens on your proposal. However, you don’t want to do this if you know that you don’t have the votes. In such a case, your coalition would want to spend some time lobbying the elected officials to gain support for your proposal. Remember to use a no-blame approach. If you want respect, you need to show respect. Always stick to the no-blame approach and NEVER become argumentative. A respectful and constructive idea is harder to shoot down for political or other reasons without a dialogue.
Participation Guide: Citizen Legislator
Get it on the record! Remember, these meetings are all recorded, whether by a stenographer, audio or video recording. If a council member gives a date and commits to an action, they are more likely to adhere to that timeline if it is publicly recorded. It’s very important to get a specific commitment at the meeting. Ask, “What specific action will be taken and by what date?”
TIPS: During your presentation, praise the mayor and council’s past efforts. This is not just a matter of etiquette, it is a powerful technique. Dress appropriately.
Rehearse your presentation If your proposal is referred to special committee, like before the meeting. the traffic commission, ask: “For what purpose is the matter being referred and when can the public expect the results of the committees’ findings?” This way you get it on the official record during the public meeting. Then make sure to follow up on their commitments! Follow Up! You must not expect the officials to always follow through with their commitments. They have so many proposals coming to them each week. You need to take the initiative and follow up yourself. Wait one week, then call the council members or municipal attorney to find out what progress has been made. If you’re not given a satisfactory response, ask them (respectfully) at the next council meeting. This is possibly the most important step in your process, and a major reason why you built that coalition of supporters to help consistently follow up with your governing body members by showing up at council meetings and asking for a response during the public comment portion, emailing and phone calling the elected officials. If too much time has gone by without an adequate response, you can set up a meeting with your council president or other members of the governing body to discuss progress (or lack of).
STEP 4: Sustaining Your Grassroots Effort Beyond This One Proposal
Now that you have a group of citizens that care about the community and you have a good working relationship with members of your governing body, school board, or county freeholders, try to keep the group going. Take a look at other issues in the community that the citizens group is concerned
or passionate about. Vote on the top priority among the list of items that the group comes up with as your next issue to work on. Understand that many of the coalition members were only interested in that one issue you successfully resolved, and will be on their way. You may find that some people will not be interested in the new issue and their participation will wane. In this case, you’ll need to find new stakeholders from the community to bring into the coalition to keep it going. Check in with us ([email protected]
) to find out if more people in your area have become involved with The Citizens Campaign since you started that may be interested in joining your efforts.
NEED MORE HELP? If you run in to any roadblocks on your way, you can take an online refresher class any time at thecitizenscampaign.org. Or if you need expert guidance, contact Renee to request a coach to help you succeed in your efforts at (732) 548-9798 x9, [email protected]