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So You Want to be Heard!

Citizen Participation in Government

by Clark E. Crouch, Former Councilmember
City of Richland, Washington

"An informed and active citizenry is the lifeblood of local government."


It is important in a democracy that citizens help keep their elected representatives informed. In order to truly represent the people, your representatives need to know your thinking about the issues upon which they must make decisions. As a citizen, you can help insure good legislation by communicating with your elected representatives at the proper time.

Too many people never have any contact with those who represent them in government---those whose vote may decide what price you will pay for the acts of government, sometimes in terms of dollars, or in changes in standards of living, or in regulatory inconveniences.

This short publication outlines how you can participate more effectively in the government of Richland, Washington and presents some important points that will make your participation more effective. Residents of other cities who are accessing this page should check with their own city government for specifics regarding their city's governance, organization, and pubic involvement opportunities.

Please understand the complexity of the legislative decision-making process. It involves not only your view, but also opposing views held by individuals who are just as concerned as you are and who are also communicating those concerns to members of council. Consider the following diagram showing the sources of information which city council members may receive and which they need to consider in making a decision:

Decision Matrix

Members of council do listen. Unfortunately, however, the view of even a very large number of proponents (or opponents) who show up at a council meeting to speak on an issue may not prevail when their testimony is weighed with all of the other information available to council members in making their decision. Public input is important but it may be outweighed by other information or testimony. In short, each council member must act as a "judge" of all the information available.

    An editorial comment

    No responsible member of a city council will be persuaded by any one source of input.

    Having said that, I know that council members are not perfect and I even know some who have pandered to the audience or constituents, on any number of controversial issues, saying: "I've had a dozen people contact me and they're all against this so I will vote against it!"

    Do you really want a representative who is swayed by just a few voices -- perhaps, in the high extreme, as many as three dozen persons who, in Richland, represent less than one-tenth of one percent of the population)? Or, would you rather have a council member who will hear all of the evidence and then make a reasoned decision based upon all of the information and facts available?" I hope you will fully support the latter because truly effective council members will take the time to analyze all of the information available and will cast their vote based upon all of the facts, rendering a decision which is in the interest of the total community!

    One "typical" politician, when asked how he was going to vote on an issue, responded: "Well, some of my friends are for this and some of my friends are against it and I'm for my friends." And that's a real problem: legislators cannot please everyone but, hopefully, most will consider all sides of an issue and then act in what they honestly believe is in the best interest of all.

Who, then, does council hear? Everyone! Obviously, council members benefit, and the quality of the final decision is improved, when a broad base of information is available. And, regardless of the outcome, your view is extremely important.

The final decision, after considering and weighing all the information, must be based on the judgment of the council members...on their own personal assessment of the issue and its impact on the total community.

Not everyone will be happy with a given decision. Hopefully, however, individuals will be pleased and satisfied that they have representatives who can set aside their own personal views to consider all of the evidence and make decisions which are in the best interest of the total community.

Listed below, then, are eight steps for working more effectively with your Richland city government. Following the list, each item is discussed in more detail. Although much of the material is generic, readers from other cities should check with their city clerk for information on their own city, its governance, and opportunities for involvement.

  1. Become involved
  2. Be selective
  3. Become informed
  4. Organize
  5. Use personal communications
  6. Make telephone contacts
  7. Make in-person contacts
  8. Attend meetings
  9. Write letters
Become involved

  1. The most effective way to assure that your voice is heard is to serve as a member of one or more citizen groups formed to advise the city council and staff on a variety of issues. These advisory groups are made up of citizens who want to be involved and who have volunteered their time to serve their community.

  2. Select your field of primary interest and volunteer for appointment. Richland has a variety of citizen boards, commissions, and committees as listed below. These have been established to advise the council on a variety of subjects as reflected by their names. The city clerk can provide a current list of such groups and their operating guidelines and provide guidance in applying to serve on the committee(s) of your choice.

    • Americans with Disabilities Act Review Committee
    • Board of Adjustment
    • Economic Development Committee
    • Housing Authority
    • Housing and Community Development Advisory Committee
    • Library Board
    • Lodging Tax Advisory Committee
    • Parks and Recreation Commission
    • Personnel Committee
    • Planning Commission
    • Utility Advisory Committee

  3. Remember, as a citizen volunteer, your concern is for the total community. It is your task to listen to other volunteers and city staff, to offer your own ideas for consideration by others, to assist in developing a position, and then to support the final position adopted by the board, commission, or committee on which you serve. In accomplishing this, you and other members should be guided by:

    • Federal laws applicable to municipal government;
    • State laws as contained in the Revised Code of Washington;
    • The charter establishing Richland as a first class city;
    • The Richland Municipal Code;
    • The charter of your board, commission, or committee; and
    • The city's goals and objectives as adopted by the city council.

Be selective

  1. Determine your priority concerns and become involved on those specific issues rather than on every issue.

  2. If you are "always there" and speaking out on every issue, you may lose credibility. Concentrate on those issues which are most important to you.

  3. The "pen pal" who writes every few days, the "orator" who speaks at every opportunity, and the "sage" who offers views on every conceivable issue, tend to lose their effectiveness through over-exposure.

Become informed

  1. Learn how the system works...find out how Richland's government works; learn its commission, board, and committee structure, find out which is dealing with your concerns and which council members are involved; and find out when and how to lobby most effectively.

  2. Know what council members to contact. Unlike some cities which elect council members to represent wards or districts, Richland elects members of council at large. Thus, our council members are generally receptive to contacts by any constituent while those elected on the ward system may tend be more responsive to voters from their own ward.

  3. Find out which council members have an interest in your area of concern. In Richland, city council members are designated as council liaisons to city boards, commissions, and committees and would be appropriate first contacts. For example, if your concern is related to a neighborhood park, find out which council member is assigned to the Parks and Recreation Commission and make that person your first contact.

  4. If an issue is on-going, become especially well informed and work to become a valued "expert" by keeping your council members advised. If your views are perceived as thoughtful, expert, and constructive, you may find your representative calling you for information!

  5. Nothing hurts an individual's credibility more, or faster, than "shooting from the hip" and taking grand positions without checking out the facts.

    For example, several critics of a building project complained in letters to the newspaper that the money should be spent for street repairs instead of the building. A little research or a telephone call could have revealed that the money for the building came from a grant for the building and that State law prohibits using the money for any other purpose.
Organize!

  1. Forming a group to lobby for or against an issue can sometimes be more effective than individual efforts. An organized group can be far more visible, have greater resources, and be much more persuasive.

  2. Organize a group of friends, co-workers, or neighbors around a specific issue of common interest. Define your goals, identify tasks that are part of the plan, and divide the work. (For instance, one person can research available material, another can keep track of the the issue as it moves through the process, several can attend board or commission meetings , others can personally meet with the council member, etc.) ... Keep everyone informed.

  3. The effective group needs to plan its strategies so that each member understands the agenda, carrys the same message, and offers the same solutions.

Use personal communications

  1. Personal contacts can be one of the most meaningful ways to influence a council member.

  2. It is best to meet informally or socially with council members even before you have specific issues to address. Professional lobbyists specifically suggest this kind of personalized, informal contact. Friendly, personal acquaintance and help at campaign time, form a strong basis for personal or group lobbying efforts.

  3. Be open in your contacts. Some citizens hide their identity by sending anonymous letters, making anonymous telephone calls, or blocking their telephone numbers against caller identification. Council members have to vote on issues and take a public stand so they value your willingness to be open and to stand up for your beliefs. Added credibility is given to individuals and their testimony when they are not afraid to voice their views.

  4. Before contacting any council members, take time to inform yourself and read any available background material on the issue which concerns you. Although it is obviously beneficial for you to know a great deal about the specifics, it is not essential that you know everything. The primary goal of your contact is to express your support, voice your concern, or offer suggestions regarding the issue.

Make telephone contacts

  1. Telephone contacts are the most immediate way to contact your city council person.

  2. Know when and where to contact a council member. Some are employed full time and contact at their workplace could be very inconvenient or inappropriate...and might even jeopardize a council member's job.

  3. Council members are generally available by telephone at reasonable times during evenings or weekends. Don't abuse this method of contact and do try to avoid mealtime or late evening calls.

Make in-person contacts

  1. Most members of council are willing to meet with you. If you want to see a council member, call and make an appointment to meet at a convenient location. Let the council member know what you wish to discuss and its degree of urgency.

  2. If you have genuine expert knowledge, share it with the council member. It will be welcomed. No council member can be an expert on everything. All views are important, but expertise is especially valued. Remember any lobbyist's most useful role for a council member is as a source of information. If you are well informed and/or understand the issues involved as a result of personal knowledge or research, you may be of great assistance to the council member.

  3. Be constructive. If an issue deals with a problem you admit exists, but you believe the planned approach is wrong, explain what you believe is the right approach. If you want to suggest amendments to a matter under consideration, it is important that you have:

    • a clear idea of what you want to be added, changed, or deleted;
    • the reasons to justify the proposed changes; and
    • good, strong facts to back up your position.

  4. If possible, provide a written statement of your position and/or suggested changes to the council member.

  5. Take the opportunity to thank council members who support (or who voted for) the position you favor---it will reinforce your relationship and strengthen their position. It will also strengthen your position as "an advisor" because you are not asking for anything. Council members are human and they appreciate an occasional pat on the back.

  6. You do not need a crowd to present your case. One, or possibly two, well-informed individuals speaking on the same subject can be more effective and less confusing than a large group gathered at the same time.

  7. When you introduce yourself, save time by making it clear who you are and what organization, if any, you represent. If you are working with a group of people, mention it and the fact that other members of group may also be trying to reach the council member.

  8. Do not "overkill." Most council members have many demands on their time. An elaborate sales job or long emotional speech will not be appreciated. They do, however, want your well-prepared facts and views, presented in a straightforward manner. Make sure their time is well spent in talking to you. Stick to the issues that you came to discuss; don't wander into other issues -- be concise!

  9. It is easy, particularly when dealing with council members who disagree with you, to become angry and frustrated. If you disagree, a calm, reasonable attitude and a set of well-prepared reasons for your position may change their minds on the issue. It is generally advisable not to get into arguments which may trigger prejudices. Remember, you may not have all the facts on an issue or bill.

  10. Let council members explain their views--listen without interrupting--they often have input from many resources to which you may not have access, such as fiscal agencies, state departments, other groups with expertise on the issue, and legislation from other communities.

  11. Take a few notes about their comments, noting any questions they have. Give the answers you know, and offer to get the others, if possible. Understanding their views of the facts and where they come from will help your develop counter arguments.

  12. Don't demand a commitment before the facts are in. Give your council member a fair chance to examine all sides of an issue. The legislative process is very complex, even in a small city such as Richland, and legislation changes its shape as it moves through the system. It is possible that the issue you supported originally is so changed in the process that you would oppose it in its final form. A council member must vote after weighing the good with the bad and the needs of all constituents, rather than those of a particular group or individual.

Attend meetings

    Attend council meetings, take part in public hearings, and sit in on board and commission meetings to learn more about the subjects of interest to you and to learn more about our government in action. Recent councils have been especially sensitive to public views and, even while realizing that the ultimate decision on most matters must rest with the members of council, have taken more issues to the public than ever before in our city's history.
Write letters

  1. A personal letter is usually the most effective way of contacting your council member. It can be read at at convenient time and can be retained for reference as council considers the issue.

  2. If you're new at this type of letter writing, here are some suggestions on how your letters can be most effective

    • Address it properly: Know your council members full name and spell it correctly.

    • Always include your name, address, and telephone number on the letter itself (printed or typed). A letter cannot be answered if there is no return address or the signature is not legible and envelopes may become lost or detached.

    • Use your own words. Avoid form letters. They tend to be identified as organized pressure campaigns and are often answered with form replies. One thoughtful, factual, and well-reasoned letter can carry more weight than 100 form letters or printed postcards.

    • An alternative to personal letters is the petition process. A petition does let council members know that the issue is of concern to a large number of people, however, it is not as effective as a flood of personal letters. If a petition is used, be sure to include addresses with zip codes for each signature. Telephone numbers are also appreciated.

    • Time the arrival of your letter. Try to write to your council member while there is still time to take effective action. Sometimes a helpful, informative letter, which could have made a difference in the final decision, arrives too late to be considered.

    • Be reasonably brief. Many issues are complex, but a single page, presenting your opinions, fact, arguments, or proposals as clearly as possible, is preferred and welcomed by most council members.

    • Give reasons for your position. Explain how the issue would affect you, your family, business or profession-- or the effect on our community or our state. If you have specialized knowledge, share it with your council member. Concrete, expert arguments for or against the issue can be used by the council member in determining and influencing the final decision.

    • Be constructive. If a bill deals with a problem you admit exists, but you believe the bill is the wrong approach, explain what you believe to be the right approach.

  3. You may not always receive a long, detailed response to your letter. Members of council are very busy, most having a full time job, and usually cannot respond with long, personal replies to each correspondent.

  4. Write a letter of appreciation when you feel a council member has done a good job. Council members are human too and seldom receive "thank you" letters of encouragement.

  5. Remember, on any one issue, even a few letters to one council member can have an important impact. Sometimes just one letter, with a new perspective, or with clear-cut, persuasive arguments can be the decisive factor in a council member's action.

So, there are some ideas on how you can productively participate in city government. You can help to make your council and your government more responsive to community needs if you are willing to become constructively informed and involved...a citizen partner in government. You will be welcome!


Copyright ©2002 by Clark Crouch, All rights reserved. • Last Modified: