By Charlotte Ekker Wiggins
As more people become aware of the role of pollinators, legislators are facing citizen proposals to change the way they classify, and manage lawns and public spaces. One of the targets of change is a group of plants called “weeds.” Weeds are defined as “plants that are not valued where they are growing” and “usually have a vigorous growth.” Combined with a post WWII nationwide movement to have green carpet-like lawns, communities adopted a range of laws that encouraged manicured green spaces at the cost of plant diversity. Some also prohibited where property owners could grow what plants, such as vegetable beds on front lawns.
Research confirms those expanses of green are barren of any contributions back to the ecosystem and are expensive and high maintenance. There are an estimated 40 to 50 million acres of lawn in the US: 40% is residential lawns, 20% lines roadsides, and about 3% is on golf courses. As more land gets developed, there will be a decrease in available food species pollinators depend on, contributing to their decline and extinction. It may also affect us. One out of every three bites of healthy food we eat is courtesy of pollinators.
How to Make Changes
Making legislative changes can be challenging. Besides going against accepted practices, new laws can inadvertently impact others. I know what it’s like to be on both sides of those proposals. For many years I made a number of suggestions to our local government for non-profits I started, beginning with an animal shelter in 1979. Then for 8 years I sat on that same government entity listening to others make their proposed changes and improvements. In 2015, I worked with a Missouri State Beekeepers Association team to change Missouri’s honey labelling laws.
The good news is the process is the same; the challenge is finding out who to know and who supports the concept you are proposing.
The following are some of my suggestions on how to prepare yourself, and take on, making changes. These principles will work for the various levels of government with the focus on your local government.
Do your homework.
You are going to be the “voice’ of the proposed change you want made. You need to know as much, if not more, of anyone about every aspect of the proposal. You will need to:
• Research and know your local ordinances. Check with your city clerk to get a good starting point.
• Understand how your local governing body operates.
• Know your state laws and how they impact your community.
• Identify the alternative(s) you want.
• Make sure your alternative(s) will “fit” your community.
• Take photos to “show” the change you want made. Better yet, have a demonstration of what you are proposing. Some people are not exposed to alternatives so make it easy for them to understand what you are proposing. Something visual is much easier to understand than a long description.
• Remember to do an inventory of your own practices. If you yourself are not following what you propose it won’t take much to defeat it.
Identify who will challenge proposed changes.
Knowing who may oppose you may help you assess how difficult, or easy, it will be to make the changes you are proposing. Who may be opposed and why?
Start with the most impacted. How do the neighbors feel about the proposed changes, are they supportive of your efforts? One of the easiest steps you can take is to set up a demonstration somewhere – your own property or a local nearby school or vacant property. Put up signs explaining what you are doing. A number of national groups offer attractive signs that can be part of your effort to educate people. You will also find a percentage of people who don’t understand.
Education is the best approach before you make a proposal; enlisting the support of well-respected community members can help increase understanding and backing. Another group will be opposed because the change impacts them directly. If you can substantiate how your proposal will benefit them – less work, less cost, possible voter support – you will get the attention of this group.
A percentage of opposition will be from people who don’t like change. Set those names aside because you may have enough support to get your proposal approved without them. In general, people who don’t like change are a tough group to convince otherwise.
Once you have identified your opponents, prepare how you will address their concerns. Is there someone else who can talk to them besides you? Do you have arguments to address their concerns? As with a lot of things in life, it’s who you know who can make a difference.
How does your government work.
Spend extra time getting to know how your government works and how proposals get reviewed and approved.
Discuss with city government officials one on one.
Identify their concerns and note how you will address them.
Address their concerns in your one-page summary.
Check with other groups that have approach your government to make changes; learn from their experience and follow their advice.
Identify who may support changes.
Just as important as knowing your opponents, you need to identify those individuals and groups who will support you. You may need to call on them to help you with your proposal. Are they
• City officials?
• Community groups?
If they look like the same groups that could be opposed, they could be. It is up to you to know who the principal influences and decision-makers are and where key individuals stand. The more you know about the critical players in these groups, the more successful you will be getting your proposal approved.
You need to know your proposal so well that you are talking about it in your sleep.
Here are some things you can do to prepare yourself:
• Develop a one page summary of issue/proposed solution. Include photos!
• Practice an elevator speech, which is a 15-second, easy to understand pitch. What are you proposing and why?
• Practice a media interview. Who/what/where/when/why/withwhom/how much. Keep your answers short. Summarize.
Depending on other factors, such as when your supporters can help, set up a contact calendar. Making changes can take time. Having a calendar will keep you focused and help you make the meetings and other events that will require your time.
Once you feel you are ready, set up your list of potential contacts.
The first names on your contact list should be your supporters.
Neighbors ok? Make sure to have their support. Pass out one page summary copies to them. Get them organized and ready to help you with emails, attending meetings, making phone calls, answering questions.
Talk to other support groups. Identified other groups that agree with you? Ask them to attend/email and show support. Some groups pass resolutions showing their collective support of proposals. Depending on your timeline, get on their schedule to debate and vote on your proposal.
One of the more popular approaches to show support is to circulate petitions. Don’t focus on numbers; make sure the signatures are from people who understand the issue and truly support it.
Make your case/presentation.
Ready to make your proposal? Know what the meeting rules are and follow them:
• Pass out one page summary of issue/proposed solution (with photos)
• Listen to discussion; take notes on who is supporting you.
• Encourage support groups to attend meetings with you.
• Observe time limits.
• Dress professionally.
• Follow-up one on one with supporters.
• Track your issue.
Be ready to work with media.
Sometimes there is a tendency to go straight to media with an issue. I recommend you talk to potential supporters and voters first. Sometimes getting media support can appear as pressuring a governmental entity and that can strain the working relationship.
On the other hand, most government meetings have local media attending. If you don’t know who they are before you attend the meeting, introduce yourself during a meeting break and get their names and contact information. Be ready to provide yours.
• Give media your one-page summary of issue/proposed solution (with photos)
• Be prepared to answer questions.
• If you don’t know, say so, then follow up with the information they requested.
Track your proposal.
One presentation will not usually do it so you need to shepherd your presentation. Keep your calendar updated and follow up on any requests for information.
• Follow-up with elected supporters. Ask them for their help and thank them along the way. Keep asking what happens next.
• Count your votes. Know how many votes you need and where you are in getting those votes.
• Be patient with the process but keep after it.
• Provide updates; keep answering questions and keep in contact with your supporters.
With time, and persistence, you should be able to make the change you want made.
Charlotte Ekker Wiggins has a master’s degree in management from Webster University. She was elected to her 25,000 population city government from 1999-2007. She is the author of “Bee Club Basics or How to Start a Bee Club,” a management guide for local bee clubs available on Amazon. More info at www.charlotteekkerwiggins.com.