Grassroots Lobbying:
How Not to Pass a

Local Smoking Law
(Written in 1996, this guide to citizen lobbying on the local level is still relevant to many causes and communities.) 

How to Cause Yourself Unnecessary Aggravation
in Smoking Ordinance Work
A Tongue-in-Cheek Checklist
Walt Bilofsky and Randy Greenberg [1]

This checklist arose from our work with the Smoke-Free Marin Coalition, which successfully pressed for enactment of strong local smoking ordinances in all twelve jurisdictions in Marin County, California.
Although it deals directly with smoking ordinances and California's local government structure, much of the material is applicable to other jurisdictions and legislative topics. To enjoy it fully, you should be familiar with how laws get enacted in your community, and with the rudiments of grass roots organizing.
Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights

Also see the Secondhand Smoke and Community Laws page (with many other links).

I. Before Going Public: [2]

Don't line up legislative supporters.

Once the public hearing is over, the City Council will discuss and make decisions, and your chance for input may be over. Why line up one of them beforehand to focus on and support your ordinance, when you could watch five legislators creatively rewriting every section?
Don't check out the council.
Why waste a perfectly good evening at a council meeting when you're not even on the agenda? Who cares about observing the procedure, how hearings are conducted, and the dynamics of interaction among councilmembers and with staff? [3] Speaking of which ...
Ignore staff.
In many cities, a little research (or simply observing a council meeting) can reveal that considerable moxie is in the hands of the city manager, city clerk, or even the city attorney. Getting their support can eliminate a fun free-for-all later on. You might even get yourself stuck with writing or polishing the staff report and recommendations to the council -- who needs that kind of work?
Snub your opposition.
Meetings with business leaders, particularly prominent restaurant owners and managers and the president and/or exec of the local Chamber, may deprive you of future fireworks by neutralizing opposition or even uncovering unexpected support. [4] You might also find out in advance about local organizing by tobacco industry representatives and front groups (handing you one of your best issues), and who the leaders against you are, thus robbing you of the opportunity for high pressure creativity during critical council hearings.
Ignore the pressure points.
Often there are one or two impacted locations - the town's favorite restaurant, for example - that are of special concern to the council. It would be unfair to cut a deal with those favorites and deprive other, less cherished opponents of their best leverage.
Avoid a "Citizen's Committee".
Don't let the council get off the hook by sticking you in a series of boring meetings with your opposition. [5]
Don't network.
This way, you get all the glory. Besides, legislators will listen just as hard to the truth when it comes from you instead of some doctor from the county medical society, or volunteer from the Lung Association. And don't talk to other coalitions, or information clearinghouses like ANR, who can give you the refutation to the tobacco folks' latest sneaky ploy. After all, you'll learn more from making mistakes than avoiding them.
Always answer the exact questions asked by the press.
Why shouldn't the media control the coverage of your issue? That way, you avoid the work of preparing a list of major selling points, reducing them to succinct quotable quotes, and weaving them into any and all questions the media asks. Is it worth all that effort just to look savvy and have your best arguments in the local media?
Don't try to influence the media.
Your local paper's attitude, and the letters to the editor, may well define the entire debate in your community. If your paper doesn't want to present boring facts and figures about death and dying from secondhand smoke, why do their job for them by meeting with editors, providing background materials, asking to write guest columns, and conducting a letter-to-the-editor campaign? And if your community's leading doctors and other health professionals are too busy to write their own letters, they don't deserve to have you provide them with drafts. If the opposition's letters, appearing unopposed, convince the council that this is a rights issue, not a health issue, the hearing will be that much more lively.
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II. Before the First Hearing:

Don't check the packet or agenda.

Perusing the public folder on the agenda item, available a few days before the hearing, would show you the same information packet sent to the councilmembers, usually containing the staff recommendation to the council, just what council action is being considered [6], the precise language of any draft ordinance (often with a surprise change or two), and sometimes all letters received on the subject. Why ruin your carefully prepared speech by focusing your testimony on the issues before the council?
Don't talk to legislators the day before.
Often they will tell you if they or another councilmember has a specific amendment or issue in mind. It would spoil the surprise if you spoke to that issue during testimony. [7]
Don't provide specific recommendations.
If you don't like a provision of a draft ordinance, just show up and say so at the hearing. Providing a specific recommended amendment or alternative, in writing, in advance, either to the staff or council, might stop them from exercising their own creativity. Fascinating amendments have been crafted in hearings that run to two a.m.
Don't compromise.
Sometimes the opposition [8] will support your ordinance in return for a fairly minor compromise (such as excluding bars) that the council is likely to give them anyway. Why give those lowlifes the chance to look like health heroes? [9]
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III. At the Hearing

Show up only when necessary.

If you have reason to think a hearing won't be controversial, save your energy. Only turn supporters out when you're planning to put on a big show. If you're wrong and the opposition turns out in force, you'd be happier your people missed it. [10]
Show up just in time for your item.
Avoid the boring stuff at the start of the meeting. If you're told your item will come up late, plan to arrive then. If earlier items are taken off the agenda, or your hearing is moved up to accommodate a large crowd of speakers, you may save even more time than you had hoped.
Communicate your position in every possible way.
Shake your head violently and mutter "No, no." under your breath when opponents speak, and boo and hiss when they finish. If people are smoking, fan the air and hold your nose. The council will respect your maturity and the sincerity of your convictions. [11]
"Get" the smokers.
After all, this isn't just about a toxic substance in the air. If smokers take this all personally, they really must be bad people. If this ordinance restricts their freedom and forces them to quit, so much the better. [12]
Don't talk to staff or councilmembers during a recess.
Show your good manners by staying in your seat. So what if this is your best opportunity to find out about any last minute surprises about to blindside you?
Don't hassle the press.
Stay away from reporters (often identifiable by steno pads in hand). If they want your side of the story, they'll come to you. [13]
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IV. After Enactment.

Don't worry about a referendum.

If angry business leaders threaten a ballot referendum to overturn your spanking new law, call their bluff. Don't waste your time poisoning the well by calling attention to tobacco industry involvement [14] and the cost to taxpayers of an election.
Forget your old opponents.
Going back to them a few months after the ordinance has taken effect will often produce glowing testimonial letters about how great it's working. [15] Why confuse the opposition in the next city?
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[1] Walt Bilofsky is a board member and past president of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights. Randy Greenberg is a member of the Planning Commission of Tiburon, California. They were co-chairs of the Smoke-Free Marin Coalition from 1992 to 1994.

[2] "Going public" may mean announcing your campaign to the press, or later on, the first public discussion of an ordinance by a city council or county board of supervisors.

[3] Council procedures vary widely. The main hearing is usually on first reading but in some cities is on second, meaning input to drafting takes place outside the council chamber. Some cities make decisions in study session. In planning testimony, it's important to know if the public can "butt in" during council discussion after the hearing is closed, and how the order of witnesses is determined, so your "closer" can go as close to last as possible. And so on.

[4] Example: in several communities we have worked with a sympathetic ex-smoker executive director of the chamber who has smoothed the way in the business community. It is also wise to put as much time as possible between the first shock of raising the issue to the business community and the time the council takes action.

[5] If the council is wishy-washy, this can be an effective way to get consensus, but it must be handled carefully; a watered down proposal can sink your effort in this and neighboring jurisdictions. Make sure you get control, either by having a majority on the committee to start with, or by forming a coalition with opponents with specific interests (e.g., a bowling alley operator). If you have to make important concessions, consider dissolving without making a recommendation; determined opponents may chip away in committee and then submit a minority report asking the council for even more weakening.

[6] Possible actions include a first reading, a general discussion of the issue, giving direction to staff on researching the issue and/or drafting an ordinance.

[7] One great experience was going up to a councilmember during a recess and learning he was considering a weakening amendment, then in the hearing making the argument that persuaded him to drop it.

[8] Or important members of the opposition - divide and conquer!

[9] "Always talk to your enemies. You're not going to make the deals with your friends." But don't give away too much. Remember you may be setting a precedent for other jurisdictions nearby.

[10] For example, always have some support at a second reading, especially if the opposition is surprised by passage of a first reading. Often weakening amendments are brought up at this generally routine stage. Another good time to get blindsided is when the agenda item is discussion only, and you're saving your forces for a formal hearing later on.

[11] This should not discourage applause, at least until the mayor says otherwise.

[12] Important: If this sounds just fine to you, take a careful look at differentiating between legitimate reasons for legislating, and things which might be good side effects, but poor reasons to pass a law. Zealots look bad. To look good, oppose smoke in the air but sympathize with the smokers, whose feelings are understandably hurt when we point out they're walking toxics sources.

[13] Best time to speak to press, especially radio and TV, is before the hearing, when they're waiting around bored and not on deadline. Spokespersons should always identify themselves to any media present; often this results in a chance to present your viewpoint using the pithy quotes you've prepared beforehand.

[14] The absolute best way to head off a referendum by local business people is to demonstrate that they will be tarred, loudly and often, with their ties to the tobacco industry. If you have any evidence for such ties, discuss them persistently in the press, in interviews and letters to the editor, starting about five seconds after the word "referendum" is first spoken.

[15] This happens more often than you'd think, because (1) they don't want to look like bad guys, (2) their fears never measure up to the reality, and (3) even if they hate it, they're stuck with it and so will want to encourage neighboring jurisdictions to put everyone in the same boat.
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