Understanding the Process is Key to Avoiding Advocacy Frustration

A person speaking at a podium in front of people sitting at desks
A 2022 Madison Common Council meeting

Suppose the County Board where you live is considering building a new roundabout that would replace a traditional four-corner crossing. You’re against it. You do some homework. Make some notes. The night before the County Board meeting where your item is on the agenda, you stay up late writing and polishing your comments. Your arguments, you’re certain, are airtight and persuasive. At the next night’s County Board meeting, much to your surprise and frustration, no public testimony is taken on the topic. The meeting ends and you go home in a huff.

This happens all the time. It’s not a case of uncaring local officials callously sending people away unheard. It happens because many members of the public simply don’t understand the process well enough to make a difference. How can you win on an issue when you don’t fully grasp how the game is played?

We reached out to Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell for his thoughts on how to make sure your voice is heard. There are many paths toward successful public engagement. McDonell returns over and over to these basic two points:

  • Gather information and organize your engagement early in the process, long before your item is scheduled for a vote.
  • Prepare for and attend the oversight committee meetings that take place long before the item is considerd by the full board. An oversight committee is a subcommittee that researches and discusses the issue and then makes recommendations on it to the full board or council.

“A mistake that people make is waiting too long until it’s almost up for a vote before the city council,” says McDonell. “The place to make a difference is when an item is in oversight committee.” McDonell says oversight committee members schedule time for public testimony at their meetings and will often engage with the public in a back-and-forth exchange. It’s all about timing. “The sausage is still being made and you can change the ingredients,” says McDonell. “If you wait until the full council meeting, the sausage is done.”

So where do you start with your campaign to oppose our hypothetical roundabout? McDonell says the first step is to contact the County Board member, alder or village trustee who represents your specific neighborhood.

Pick their brain about what they know about the plan–its specifics, timeline and, most importantly, committee assignment. For example, in the case of our hypothetical roundabout, it’s most likely going to be assigned to the transportation committee. In any case, your local representative will tell you which committee it’s assigned to. They will also tell you the names of and contact info for the members of that committee. Then call the Committee Chair. A phone call is better than an email. Now the real work begins.

McDonnell says there are a lot of questions to ask the Chair. “First, you have to find out who’s in charge of that project,” he advises. “Is it the State? The County or Village? Is it a state road going through the village? Who’s in charge of designing it?”

The answers to these questions may send you to people from other branches of government for more information. That information will then inform your own testimony when the time comes. You’ll be more persuasive opposing a government plan if you know who you’re opposing. For example, the Village of Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin oversaw the design of all recent roundabout projects there even though some of those projects included county roads.

The Committee Chair can also tell you how to track the issue, so you won’t miss opportunities to observe and/or participate in the debate. Here are things to keep in mind:

  • Some counties send email alerts on agenda item activity.
  • State law requires that agenda items for public meetings be posted by Friday of the week before a meeting.
  • Agenda items can change weekly. An item for next week’s meeting that was on the agenda two weeks ago may be dropped the week before the meeting.

“You really have to stay on top of that,” McDonell says on that last point.

Early in the process, the system may allow a member of the public to be on the committee. Ask about that. McDonell says a person can be highly effective asking an official, “Have you taken into consideration the opinion of a person with disabilities on this subject?” No matter what, try to get representation.

Call your allies and ask them to get involved. A call to a County Board member from a person who lives in the area directly impacted by our hypothetical roundabout is far more persuasive than from someone who lives across the county and may seldom use it. Mobilize and organize people who live in the affected area. The more calls from those individuals, the better.

When those oversight committee meetings roll around, show up! “You need to make it personal. Talk with people.” McDonell adds that almost all public officials seek ways to, “put a face on the dollars that are going out.” He’s seen change take place based directly on human interactions. “Showing up makes it personal on an emotional level,” he says. “People react to feeling more than to charts and numbers. If you make someone feel a certain way, they won’t forget it.

Finally, McDonell says to hone your message. “Roundabout is bad” probably won’t be successful, simply because not all roundabouts are bad. “But they are bad when applied incorrectly,” says McDonell. So instead of just making a “Not in my backyard” type of argument, he says, “try to have a policy argument that someone could apply elsewhere and be okay with it.”

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