Citizens take a course in public participation

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(Host) Decisions are made in the Vermont State House that affect every Vermonter. Citizens are welcome to air their opinions, in public hearings and before House and Senate committees. But preparing testimony takes time. And it can be intimidating if you don’t know the ropes. With the new Legislature just weeks away, several dozen would-be citizen activists spent a day at the Statehouse getting an inside look at the art of effective citizen participation.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports:

(Keese) The workshop was held in a red-carpeted meeting room where many public hearings actually take place. Its sponsor was the National Wildlife Federation’s Northeast Women’s Environmental Network. The network’s goal is to encourage women – and men – to get involved in environmental issues. But this training had broader aims.

Danby activist Annette Smith is on the network’s steering committee. Smith has testified at the Statehouse many times on issues involving corporate land use. At a time when paid lobbyists are on the rise in Montpelier she says, legislators are eager to hear from citizens.

(Smith) “People are very busy, it’s hard for them to take time off work. And so the legislators have been overwhelmed with lobbyists and the Vermont citizens have simply not been in the Statehouse. And so we thought it would be a good idea to encourage people to come and speak about whatever issues are important to them, and be back part of the process.”

(Keese) Not everyone arrived with specific issues in mind. Kristine Bryan is a schoolteacher from Charlotte. She been disillusioned by recent elections.

(Bryan) “And so I’m feeling that voting and reading about issues is maybe not enough. And I figured maybe this is a good place to start. Maybe I can at least get information on how to become active with education, environmental issues and health issues that I’m interested in.”

(Keese) Some participants were already involved in local struggles. Chittenden County Senator Ginny Lyons of Williston entered politics that way. Lyons offered an inside view of how bills evolve – and are sometimes stalled – in legislative committees. Only legislators can introduce a bill, Lyons said. But citizens can approach lawmakers with ideas. Lyons said legislators want public input.

(Lyons) “The buck stops with us who are in the Legislature. We make the decisions, and it’s really critically important that you are here to help us make those decisions and inform us about your positions.”

(Keese) And don’t just talk to the people who already agree with you. Sarah O’Brien, a longtime environmental lobbyist, said savvy advocates look beyond their obvious allies for sponsorship and support.

(O’Brien) “You certainly want to have both parties, certainly the two main parties, on the bill so that people understand, when they take a quick look at the bill, ‘Oh people from all sides of the political spectrum support this idea.'”

(Keese) O’Brien added that it helps to know your opponents and understand their views to argue your own position well. She also advised starting any campaign well before the budget is drafted in the fall. And O’Brien said it’s always a good idea to contact your own legislator before coming to testify.

(O’Brien) “They can maybe sit down at lunch with you and point out, here’s so and so and here’s so and so and they would be important people to talk to.”

(Keese) On the art of public testimony, speakers had plenty of tips: Describe your personal experience with the issue. If you represent a group, explain its mission. Keep your message focused and succinct. Break it down into bulleted handouts so committee members can easily review your points. Nancy Rice of the Montpelier chapter of Toastmasters International recommended a helpful pause before answering follow-up questions.

(Rice) “Pausing is a very effective tool to use when you’re responding to anybody. It gives your mind a moment to think and formulate an answer.”

(Keese) Later, everyone separated into groups to practice drafting their own testimony. They used a bill enabling towns rights to regulate local use of pesticides. Some groups testified for the bill, others opposed it:

(Sound of participants discussing the project) “I think you need to get all the existing laws and show them how it’s redundant. And I think you need to show them how it will affect the industries we’ve targeted.”

(Keese) Each group chose a spokesman to address a panel that included real legislators. One participant from Jericho testified on behalf of the bill, in the role of a mother worried about the effects of pesticides on her sick child.

(Woman) “I went to my middle school and I found they used pesticides on a very regular basis. I went to my local select board and asked if there was any way they could ask the school board to notify parents before the application of pesticides. And what they told me was that they were very nervous of going beyond what state law allows.”

(Keese) By the day’s end everyone seemed to feel more comfortable inside the imposing marble halls.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Montpelier.

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