So You’ve Marched and Signed Petitions. Now What?

Insert yourself in the policy-making process. At town hall meetings and in public hearings, during comment periods and in our courts, government officials have to listen to us—whether they like it or not.

Carlo Giambarresi

We don’t blame you if you’ve become obsessed with the government’s every move in the past year. Like many who are following the recent churn of assaults on our country’s environmental laws and most fundamental human rights, you probably know more about our legislative process than ever before. And now you’re determined to intervene. But how do you influence the lawmakers weighing such potentially devastating decisions regarding the future of our planet, particularly when some of them appear to care so little for public input?

Luckily, we still live in a democracy, with a host of federal statutes allowing citizens to intervene when the government doesn’t act on our behalf. Here’s how—and where—to use your newfound citizen activist power to make real, on-the-ground change.

First things first: Sign up for All In.

NRDC’s new grassroots advocacy platform will keep you informed of marches, town halls, and public hearings taking place in your area. You’ll find out, via text alerts even, when and where you can make your voice heard. As an All In member, you’ll also receive petitions, updates on key environmental battles, and reminders to call your elected officials. When you’re ready to take things to the next level, you’ll learn how to host activist events in your own community, such as phone-banking meet-ups, fund-raisers, or postcard-writing campaigns. Together with a group, you can generate significantly more action than you can on your own.

Show up at local town hall meetings or resistance events.

When it comes to getting involved in the legislative process, your opinion tends to carry the most weight in your own congressional district. So keep on top of these public forums hosted by your members of Congress. It’s their job to listen to your concerns and to give your community a voice in the national agenda. To make a big impression on the people at the podium, you’ll want to prepare in advance. For starters, invite some friends and prepare your talking points together—you’re much more likely to get your question answered or your comment recognized if multiple people voice the same one. Printed signs will help you attract more attention for your cause—if you’re short on time, NRDC All In offers a selection of printable signs that you can download and bring with you to the meeting. On the appointed day, arrive early so you increase your chances of getting a good seat and have your group spread out. Always be civil and respectful, and reinforce any comments or questions you agree with by applauding, to help demonstrate broad consensus on the given issue.

Even if there are no politicians in attendance—some members of Congress curtail public meetings if they fear having to respond to angry constituents—it doesn’t negate the importance of a town hall. These events may still attract media attention, which prevents unresponsive elected officials from looking the other way.

Attend public hearings.

In some cases, to introduce or repeal legislation, government agencies are required by law to hold hearings to gather public input. Agencies may also voluntarily schedule these events because of the nature of a rule they have proposed or in response to public input they’ve already received. Hearings may be local in nature, concerning a city’s plan for managing its sewage overflows or sustainably rebuilding after a major storm, for example. Or they might pertain to national policy. For instance, when the Obama administration introduced its original Clean Power Plan, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency held four two-day hearings around the country, in Pittsburgh, Denver, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. By contrast, when the Trump administration proposed repealing the plan last year, the EPA originally scheduled just a single hearing, in Charleston, West Virginia. That event drew a large crowd and gave an opportunity for public input into what many considered a rash decision to repeal this critical tool for curbing climate change. Some states and cities then took matters into their own hands by holding “people’s hearings” to broadcast the value their constituents place on the Clean Power Plan. In response to that public action, the agency formally announced it would extend the public comment period and hold three more listening sessions in other parts of the country.

To testify at a public hearing, you’ll need to sign up. You may be able to do so in advance, in which case your best bet is to call the organizing body behind the hearing (be it city hall or the EPA). You can also inquire whether written comments will be accepted, and if so, how many copies will be needed for the board. The clerk may tell you that they won’t take sign-ups until the day of the hearing—in which case it’s very important to show up early. Note that in many cases, expert witnesses and public officials will testify first, followed by people representing organizations, followed by individuals—so be prepared to be patient.

Submit public comments.

A public comment period is another legally mandated process that often precedes the implementation of a new rule or modification of an existing one. It often runs concurrently with a set of public hearings on the same topic. Government agencies usually must give the public at least 30 days to submit their arguments in support of or against a given rule. If commenters come out in droves and voice an overwhelming opposition, the agency may decide to modify its proposed rule. In other words, this is your moment!

Just look at how the Clean Water Rule was developed, as an example. When the Obama administration’s EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed this rule in 2014—clarifying that streams and wetlands connected to downstream waters in significant ways would be protected by the 1972 Clean Water Act—they didn’t make that decision in a vacuum. Instead, following years of public engagement on the issue, the agencies held a six-month public comment period to collect input on the proposed rule. More than a million comments were submitted, 87 percent of which were supportive. (Notably, the Trump administration is now working to repeal the Clean Water Rule, following a much more limited public comment period held last summer.)

To make the most of your “air time,” the government provides a cheat sheet that will help you craft an effective comment. In brief, make sure you read and understand the rule first, then base your support or opposition with sound reasoning, scientific evidence (if you can find it), and a personal note of how you will be impacted by its repeal or implementation.

Join a case.

As citizens, there are times when we find ourselves on the direct receiving end of an environmental injustice. And we have rights. Citizen suit provisions in our major environmental laws allow us to go to court to force the government to do its job—as happened recently in Flint, Michigan. There, in response to the city’s lead crisis, Flint resident Melissa Mays joined with the Concerned Pastors for Social Action, the ACLU of Michigan, and NRDC to sue the city and state for violating the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. That legal action resulted in a settlement in which the state of Michigan and the city of Flint agreed to replace thousands of local lead and galvanized steel water lines.

Additionally, though it is not common, citizens can participate in cases as affected parties outside the scope of plaintiff and defendant, including as intervenors. In Nebraska, a group of landowners whose properties were targeted for the Keystone XL pipeline project authorized by the Trump administration recently appeared before their state’s public service commission during a series of public hearings in a bid to convince officials to deny TransCanada’s permits for construction. These public intervenors ultimately helped block the company from moving forward with its preferred route through the state (which endangered Nebraska’s delicate sandhills ecosystem) and opened the door to a new round of public intervention that will now go through the state courts.

There are other ways to voice your concerns through our justice system. Many NRDC members have provided declarations in court on the importance of wildlife in their backyards or the impacts of toxic chemicals on their health, for example. NRDC lawyers typically connect with these members based on where they live and whether they might be affected by a given rule. Those who provide these personal stories used in litigation are considered “standing declarants.” Their testimonies have ultimately helped NRDC win key lawsuits, such as the FDA regulation of triclosan in personal care products—a major victory for consumer safety and public health that wouldn’t have been possible without the voices of consumers themselves.

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