Columnist Johanna Neumann: Making a town council government work for you

  • Ballots and write-in directions line the wall as voters walk in to vote at the Bangs Center in Amherst during the primary elections Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018 STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Published: 10/18/2018 9:43:37 AM

Have you ever tried to get a city or town council to act on an issue? I have. 

Here’s that story and how it shaped what I expect when it comes to local government.

Twelve years ago, I was the policy advocate for the consumer group Maryland PIRG. At the top of my to-do list was winning legislation to make all workplaces in Maryland — including restaurants and bars — smoke-free. 

Smoke-free workplace laws had already passed in 16 states and in four Maryland counties. I was confident that if we could convince Baltimore City to go smoke-free, it would tip the scales on statewide legislation. I persuaded others in our coalition on the tip-the-scale strategy, and we got to work.

First, we found our champion. City Councilor Bobby Curran made smoke-free workplaces his signature issue because he was so concerned by the health impacts of secondhand smoke.

Next we met with each of the the rest of the council members, educating them on the issue and refuting the tobacco industry’s arguments. These meetings helped us tease out who was with us, who was opposed, and who was on the fence and why.

My own council member, Mary Pat Clarke, was undecided. As the long-time councilor for a district near the city line, she was concerned that restaurants in her district would be at a competitive disadvantage because smokers could easily go to another establishment down to the street where smoking was still allowed. Plus, she was a lifelong smoker herself. But Mary Pat was a savvy legislator. She knew secondhand smoke killed. She just preferred it happen at the state level to render the “city line” issue irrelevant. When we explained the tip-the-scales strategy to her, she came around to support the bill and even lobbied the state delegation.

Two other councilors were on the fence and wouldn’t tell us why. So we turned up the grassroots pressure. By going door-to-door and canvassing for phone calls at Baltimore’s neighborhood markets, we inundated their offices with constituent phone calls, letters and emails. In the end, the swing votes cited overwhelming constituent support as the reason they switched their previous abstention votes to “yeas.”

After months of campaigning, the city council voted 9-2 in favor of citywide smoke-free workplace legislation. And, a few days later, state-level legislation advanced and the vision laid out in the tip-the-scales strategy was realized. Today 26 states, including Maryland, ban smoking in all workplaces including restaurants and bars.

My experience of moving an issue through a city council helped me understand firsthand some of the key ingredients required for a council-based government to work:

Issue champions. When a councilor is willing and able to expend energy and political capital to advance an issue, what may at first seem impossible may become attainable. Just ask Bobby Curran.

Councilors who are able to connect the dots. Many issues may not seem to be connected at first glance. To be effective, a council needs a critical mass of members of the who can keep an open mind, consider new information when it’s presented and be open to changing their positions in light of such information. And councilors need to see the interconnected nature between issues. Just ask Mary Pat Clarke.

Engaged residents. The last ingredient is not the council, but the public. Residents must be prepared to advocate for what they believe and get organized behind big issues that they want action on. In our effort to introduce and pass smoke-free workplace legislation, citizens made calls, sent emails, spoke at media events and more. If the public wants a responsive council, residents need to be prepared to give them something to respond to. 

If you live in Amherst and you’re preparing to cast your votes for your inaugural district and at-large town councilors — five votes in all — consider these criteria. Is there evidence that a candidate is flexible and open to new ideas, or are they already entrenched and unwilling to budge? Are they single-issue leaders, or do they view town issues in multiple dimensions? Are they willing to set aside their personal preferences in favor of the greater good? 

Just as important: Are we, as residents, ready to make our case on the issues that matter to us? Are we willing to organize openly in order to drive that change?  

In Amherst, as in our whole Valley, there is immense political potential to craft a better future. 

On Nov. 6th, Amherst will take a big step as we elect our first-ever town council — and open an exciting new chapter in our town’s history. 

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She writes a monthly column on environmental and public interest issues and can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.


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