Government meetings: Getting your voice heard, without yelling
Sometimes to make a point, you’ve got to be loud –
ask anybody who’s rallied behind a political candidate or a social cause.
But sometimes, being too loud can overshadow your
point – look at Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina. He has fundamental
disagreements with President Barack Obama on certain points of the health care
debate, but is known less for his specific views than for being the guy who shouted
“You lie!” at the president in the middle of his nationally televised speech
Rep. Wilson was roundly criticized for his breach
of protocol at a session of Congress, and he issued a public apology, saying “I
let my emotions get the best of me.” This happens quite often when it comes to
government. Think about meetings at your local city hall; if there’s a hot
topic being discussed, public outbursts aren’t unusual, and sometimes you’ll
even see your elected officials taking part. From Capitol Hill to your state
capitol to City Council, when the government acts, people get emotional. Here
we’ll talk about why that happens, and how you can get your voice heard above
meetings: Your right to know
Why do people get emotional about the government? A
major reason, simply put, is because the government is spending YOUR money. Its
operations are paid for by tax dollars, and if the government is spending that
money on something you are passionately opposed to, you might get upset.
Almost everything you can think of gets taxed:
your paycheck, your parents’ mortgage, even your cell phone bill. The
government collects this money – YOUR money – and uses it to work for you. Because the government does this, you have a
right to participate in its meetings, to pay attention and scrutinize how officials
spend the money you turn over to them.
Generally, your local government officials meet
regularly, sometimes weekly, sometimes two or three times a month. Normally these
meetings are advertised beforehand in the local newspaper.
meetings, they discuss the work they plan on doing that month, looking at each
proposed job one at a time. And then, one by one, they vote on the proposals.
We won’t sugarcoat it: sometimes these meetings are extremely dull. But they’re
important for you to be aware of, and to participate in, because they affect
you directly, and because it’s your right to be involved.
Governments have a duty
to publish and promote openness - they cannot operate in secret. They have to
debate issues and vote in public, in the open. This was legislated by the
federal government in amendments to the Freedom of Information Act in 1976,
often called the Sunshine Act. This spawned specific laws for each state, known
as Sunshine Laws. Basically, these laws created greater openness in government
operations and spelled out the rights of you, the public, to participate and
have a say.
How to use your voice
Now, say you have an
issue that you’re passionate about, that you want to raise with your local
government. Let’s talk about how you can do that by participating in these
When you arrive at the meeting, look for copies
of the agenda close to the entrance. Take a copy – it’ll say at what point your
issue will be discussed – and take your seat.
By the Sunshine Laws,
each meeting is required to have a public comment period. It may be at the
beginning, middle or end. If you wind up waiting till the end, try not to snore
too loudly when sewer expansion is being discussed – unless, of course, your
issue involves sewers.
Each state and local
government has its own rules regarding how meetings are run and how you can
participate. Look here
to find your state’s laws; check your city or town’s website first when you go
to find out about local laws.
When it’s your time to
talk, be calm. Take the microphone and speak forcefully, but respectfully.
Identify your issue early in your remarks, and refer back to it at the end.
Suggest a solution. It helps if you practice what you want to say before the
meeting, so your comment is short, powerful and effective. It’s important to keep
your comments brief, even if there are no time limits for public comment. But
above all, be RESPECTFUL. While less is certainly more when voicing your
opinion, ideally you’ll want to offer something more substantial and more civil
than “You lie!”
What do you think?
Have you ever
participated in a government meeting? What was the experience like? What sorts
of issues would you like to talk to your government leaders about? What would you
say to them to get the best response? Join the discussion and let us know what
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