Citizen Advocacy: It Really Works!
Posted on 08/08/2011 in Your Dog, Your Rights.
by Sara Chisnell-Voigt, UKC Legal Counsel
Last month, a bill proposing to outright ban ‘pit bulls’ was filed by Representative Timothy Bledsoe (D) in Michigan, the home state of United Kennel Club. The bill would stop all breeding and sales of ‘pit bulls’ within the state of Michigan a year from enactment, require that all ‘pit bulls’ be spayed or neutered in 4 years, and finally, make it illegal to own a ‘pit bull’ 10 years from enactment of the bill. This bill comes in the face of Cleveland, OH removing breed specific language from their dangerous dog code, due to findings that the law was unsuccessful and also expensive. As of press time, the Ohio House of Representatives passed a bill that would remove ‘pit bull’ from the state dangerous dog law (the only state level BSL in the country.) The bill now awaits a vote in the Senate. More and more communities around the country are realizing that BSL doesn’t work and repealing laws containing breed specific legislation, which makes this Michigan bill seem pretty backwards.
The response to the bill was OVERWHELMING, and a perfect illustration of what citizens can achieve. Social networking was a key factor in the quick reaction from the public. A group was formed on Facebook specifically to fight the bill, and within 24 hours of the bill being filed the group already had over 900 members. A lot of media coverage was generated as well; much of it was neutral, and some stories were even against the bill. By the end of the week, the Chairman of the Regulatory Reform Committee (the committee where the bill was referred) was quoted multiple times by the media as stating he did not support the bill and it would not be heard during this legislative session. Currently, while many are reporting the bill as dead, it has not yet gone away and may still be heard in the next session. I spoke with Representative Bledsoe’s staff, and the entire office has been floored by the reaction to the bill. Rep Bledsoe still feels that “something” needs to be done about attacks by dangerous dogs, and I hope to work with him on possibly expanding Michigan’s dangerous dog law WITHOUT any breed specific legislation.
While the bill is not completely dead, and we will be monitoring it vigilantly, it is highly unlikely that anything will come of the bill. It is, however, a perfect illustration of what citizen action can achieve. So many people seek advice on what to do when problematic legislation arises in their area, and this column will cover some basic but helpful advice about responding to legislation. One of the most powerful tools in energizing an effective opposition is social networking. Through the group created on Facebook for this ‘pit bull’ bill, many people were reached and educated on how to properly respond. The group was very organized and a lot of good information was shared: names and contact information of members of the Regulatory Reform Committee, talking points against the bill, and helpful advice on making contact with legislators. When you’re faced with legislative issues affecting you, social networks such as Facebook can be a fantastic resource to quickly establish a group of individuals that are properly prepared to effectively make contact with lawmakers.
Getting some face to face contact with lawmakers could potentially have more of an impact than a letter or a phone call, and truly demonstrates to the lawmaker how important the issue is to you. Before attempting to meet with a lawmaker, be sure to call and schedule an appointment; do NOT just drop in to their office. Be on time for your appointment, but also be prepared to wait as most legislators are very busy and have hectic schedules. If you are going with others as a group, keep the group small and designate one person as the main speaker. Dress appropriately for the meeting. Appearances DO matter. Wearing overly casual clothes, such as tee shirts or torn jeans, is rather disrespectful. A suit, while nice if you have one, is not necessary. Business casual clothes, such as dress pants or skirt and a button down, polo, or nice blouse, would be perfectly acceptable. You will be taken more seriously by the legislator if you take care with your appearance and dress appropriately than if you come in to the meeting looking too casual.
Should you be able to get a meeting, it’s important to set aside any feelings of contempt for politicians and/or your party preferences. What you really want to achieve from the meeting is to plant a seed in the official’s mind, get them to think about your issue, and hopefully sway them to vote your way! Also keep in mind, the higher ranking the official, the more likely you will be to meet with support staff members rather than the lawmaker personally. Staff members do much of the work behind the scenes in government and hold more sway than you would expect, so always treat them with as much respect as you would with the legislator. It still blows my mind how very young staff members at the state and national level are. It can be hard to defer to someone much younger than yourself, but it’s necessary as the staff and aides have a lot of control over what information gets through.
Most important, keep your position brief—60 seconds is optimum. Remain friendly, maintain a professional demeanor, and don’t argue. You are there to present a position, and getting into a heated argument will not help you achieve your objectives. Remain open to questions, and always answer their questions above all else, even if you are interrupted to do so. Stay positive and never demonize or personalize your opponents, no matter your personal feelings towards them.
Do your research beforehand so you are very prepared and knowledgeable on the subject. Remember, as an active dog owner, you are there as an expert. Know the bill number and full title of the proposed law or ordinance, and have any possible data or statistics to back up your position. Equally important is to know and understand your opponent’s side of the argument. You should be able to spell out their points in a positive manner, and then counter and shut each one down. Don’t ever apologize for your position. Always keep in mind that politics are consumer driven, and use all of the information you have gathered to help your lawmaker understand how the proposed bill or law will affect their constituents. Leave fact sheets if possible, and be sure to thank the official (or staff) for their time. Make sure to obtain all staff names, as these could be important contacts for future communications. Follow up your visit with a note of thanks and any additional information if requested to provide some.
Phone calls to a lawmaker can be an effective method of getting your message across when a deadline is coming up and you don’t have time to get a letter or a meeting in. You will most likely be talking to a staff member when you call, so remember what was stated previously in the personal meeting section and be respectful of the lawmaker’s staff—don’t be annoyed that you don’t get to talk to the lawmaker personally. Know what you want to say before you call; be sure to keep it brief, speak clearly, and remain professional. Introduce yourself and your relation to their jurisdiction. State your reason and point for calling, and give a few reasons why. Use what you consider to be the most important points as your reasons to support your request. Support your position or request with points that you consider to be the most important, as there will most likely not be enough time to discuss all your points. End the call by providing your name and contact information, and offer to furnish more information if they are interested.
Writing a Letter or Email
Taking the time to compose a letter or email could be one of the most effective methods of getting your message across. Writing has advantages over phone calls and meetings in that there is less room for mistakes, and you will be able to get all your points across without being interrupted or sidetracked. Many government offices prefer actual letters to emails, so try to find out what method is preferred for the office you are contacting, or if in doubt, use both methods. First and foremost, keep your correspondence short. If it’s too long it most likely will not be read. One page in length is optimal, two is the maximum. If sending an email, it’s better to send your letter in the body of the email and not as an attachment as many government offices will not accept attachments in emails. A personally written, original letter is better than sending a form letter, so stay away from form letters. Also, a typed letter is best. If you’re sending a handwritten letter, make sure that it is neat and legible.
Discuss only one issue per letter, and make sure to cite the number and full title of the subject legislation—don’t use any acronyms or nicknames for the legislation. Use your first paragraph to state your position and/or request. Keep that first paragraph short and concise, and save the rest of your letter to support your argument. Support your position with facts and data. Remember it’s ok to show your passion, but refrain from overly emotional arguments. Avoid conceding any points from the other side or apologizing for your position. Also, if you have any family, business, or political connection to the issue, explain that connection. It may serve to help you and your position stand out.
Close your letter by reiterating your position, and state whether you are a member of the official’s district or how else you are connected. Be sure to include a note of appreciation for their dedication and hard work. Make certain to list your contact information (address, telephone number, and email address) and inform them you can provide them with more information if they are interested.
The suggested address and salutations for state and federal legislators:
Dear Assemblyman or Assemblywoman_____________
(these depend on each individual state’s titles for representatives)