Citizens Can Win (and Have Won) by Playing their Cards Right
Citizens are often faced with contentious fights about local issues — ranging from whether their community should host an industrial wind facility, to whether their community should host undocumented immigrants.
Even though many of these matters originated at state or federal levels, local citizens should still speak up about their position.
Some may believe that it is a waste of time to fight the powers that be. However, if few say anything, politicians will conclude (rightly or wrongly) that the majority of the public supports the matter at hand. Worse, the proponents will take the lack of pushback as a clear signal that they can go further yet — i.e., instead of one wind facility, they will now go for three.
What legal basis do citizens have to fight these matters? One powerful argument is called Home Rule. Basically, it means that local citizens have more say over what happens in their community (on many issues) than state or federal legislators. (Here is a good explanation as well as a list of Home Rule states.)
What about the frequent situation where your local representatives are carrying the water for state or federal agencies? The word “representatives” is key, as ultimately their legal obligation is to act in the best interest of local constituents — not be supporting virtue signaling for higher-ups.
Most State Constitutions (or State Statutes) impose a legal obligation on local representatives to specifically protect the Health, Safety, and Welfare of their constituents. These are broad terms (e.g., see here) so looking for violations of any of these three matters can be fertile grounds for making a case.
There are two general options for such fights: shotgunand rifle. The shotgun strategy is to throw out a broad range of complaints and see which ones stick to the wall. The rifle tactic is to decide ahead of time what is the key weakness of the opponent’s case, and specifically target that. (I favor the latter as usually being more effective.)
How do citizens know the weaknesses of their adversaries’ case? Let them tell you!
It’s a good idea at the beginning of a contentious issue, to get your opponents to show their hand. (When I say opponents, I primarily mean community leaders/legislators who should be objective.) A simple way to do that would be to email the primary opposition parties, and politely ask them to clarify for you what their top three (3) reasons are that justify their actions. Getting their response in writing is key.
Three BIG benefits here: 1) it can expose a rift in the adversary ranks [e.g., if they indicate different or conflicting priorities], 2) it gives you a superior indication as to where you should focus your efforts against, and 3) it makes it very hard for those people to come up with new reasons after they have spelled out their best ones (in other words this method can minimize playing whack-a-mole).
As an example, doing this for representatives who are advocating a wind project in a local community, reveals that their number one reason was the supposed financial benefits that such a facility would bring. However, their beliefs were entirely based on what the wind developer told them (i.e., a biased, one-sided story).
Once citizens knew that economics was the key matter, they researched what financial liabilitiesthere could be (see here), and found out that the net economic impact was almost always negative— and typically very negative! Making that case (in a professional manner) is a much smarter strategy than bombarding local representatives with a slew of objections. (See here and here for more info.)
Of course getting allies to support your effort viaorganization, good communication, etc. are also ingredients of a successful campaign (e.g., see #4, #5, and #6 here).
Here is a fine example (by two women) of how to speak to local representatives. If you check out their online Dropbox listed, research and focus came before their talking.
Some of my favorite quotes that apply here:
“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” — Edmund Burke
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Meade
“It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds.” — Samuel Adams
“One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” — Milton Friedman.
Be proactive, be professional, be precise, be persistent — and you will likely prevail.
The bottom line is that citizens CAN win these fights…
©2023. John Droz, Jr. All rights reserved.