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Freedom of Speech - Featured Image Test

Don't fight city hall

If you want to get something done at city hall, a Florida city commissioner argues, fighting won't help. Talking, on the other hand, builds your odds considerably.

There’s a Norman Rockwell painting of a man standing among his peaceably assembled neighbors, clad in a plaid shirt and khakis, a sheaf of notes stuffed into the pocket of his work jacket, shoulders back, head raised, prepared to petition his government for redress of grievances. Rockwell hits all the right notes. It’s a stirring image called, literally, “Freedom of Speech.”

It’s also a model of the least-effective method of local public advocacy. We’re supposed to believe that showing up at the town council or school board meeting is exactly the right way to be heard. You stand shoulder-to-shoulder with your fellows and give those folks on the dais a piece of your collective mind. That’s how you change the hearts and minds of local policy-makers, right?

Not so much. I mean, it’s constitutionally protected, and it’s absolutely your right, and you shouldn’t be afraid to do it when necessary. The question is, when is it necessary?

As a local government elected official and someone who has engaged in a fair bit of local advocacy otherwise, I want to share some things with you that might make it easier to make your local government work better for you. 

Showing up to speak at a public meeting should be the last step in policy advocacy, not the first. If it’s necessary at all, it should be the culmination of your plan of communication. Elected officials at city and county commissions/councils, school boards and the like are pretty accessible. We are your people. We wait in the checkout line at Publix with you. We share a pew with you on Sundays or Saturdays (less often than used to be the case, but still). Our children go to school together. We have friends, if not kin, in common with you. 

Most elected officials I know are genuinely interested in making their community a better place, and are more than willing to meet and talk with folks of similar interest (and by “similar interest” I mean making the community better, not a shared political identity). An informal, happenstance meeting is generally welcome. Some of my most fruitful and enlightening policy conversations have happened in the lightbulb aisle at Lowe’s on a Sunday afternoon. Don’t be shy about bringing up difficult topics in the checkout line. It’s a good opportunity for candid, useful feedback.

If you are working on more formal advocacy the best advice I can give you is to make yourself a resource for the elected officials you’re trying to influence. They can’t be an expert on everything, and at the local level they likely don’t have staff experts to lean on either. You can better express why the stuff you found floating in your neighborhood creek is unacceptable or why a proposed zoning change is potentially bad for your family than staff can.

Start by checking the internet for an email address or just calling City Hall (or the other appropriate office) to ask for an appointment. Once you’ve scheduled the appointment, whether it’s via phone, Zoom or in-person, make sure you’re prepared. Write yourself some notes, and if possible, send some ideas or articles to the person you’re meeting with so you can both make the most effective use of your time together. 

Try to remember that the person you’re meeting with is just a neighbor who is also trying to make the community a better place.

Lean into the time-honored Southern traditions of neighborliness and courtesy and away from the time-honored Southern tradition of always being ready for a fight.

After the meeting, try to follow up with an email that summarizes what you think happened in the conversation, and what you believe the next steps will be. Pro-Tip: Make your grandmother proud and send a thank-you card or message of some sort. Almost nobody does, and you will stand out.

Don’t let one meeting be your last contact. Be a resource.

Don’t be discouraged if things don’t work as quickly as you hope. Be persistent.

Don’t talk yourself out of a win. Be judicious with your words, learn to count votes and stop talking when you have enough of them.

The climate isn’t the only thing heating up these days. Tensions are high, and especially here in the South, it feels like anyone working on public policy should be prepared for battle. It doesn’t have to be that way. Lean into the time-honored Southern traditions of neighborliness and courtesy and away from the time-honored Southern tradition of always being ready for a fight. We’re all in this together, and the salvation of the South depends on figuring out how to act that way. 

 

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