How to lobby your local government

Timothy Sadler speaks with Asheville mayor Esther Manheimer at a City Council meeting. Photo by Jesse Farthing

Government is so pervasive and omnipresent that it may be easy to think that an individual voice will not be heard. But local activist Timothy Sadler doesn’t think that’s the case — in fact, he says, getting involved in local government is just a matter of learning the ropes.

Learn the structure: Most people know of City Council or the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners — but there’s a lot more to local government. “Once an issue gets before the Council, it’s almost a done deal,” Sadler says. “By the time staff and board approves, it’s difficult for Council to object.”

Boards and commissions conduct much of the local government’s affairs but are much less in the public eye. So how do you track them down?

Do your research: Sadler recommends the city’s website (ashevillenc.gov), particularly the calendar section. Both the city and Buncombe County (at buncombecounty.org) list all sanctioned boards and commissions and offer meeting calendars.

“A whole new world opened up when I saw there were all these categories of meetings, and the opportunity to give public input,” Sadler says.

Those without Internet access can call the county clerk (250-4105) or the city clerk (259-5601) for information.  With rare exceptions, all board meetings are open to the public, and many have scheduled time for public comment.

Don’t get discouraged: Sadler says one of the skills he had to learn when faced with the often molasses-like speed of government was patience. “It was frustrating to want to see things differently and not quite know how to go about it. What I would emphasize is to be patient. And meet people where they’re at.”

Sadler believes that one person can make a difference, but “not right off the bat. You have to learn the dynamics. It’s not a race, it’s a marathon.”

He adds that his perseverance has brought unexpected results. “I’ve made an unbelievable amount of contacts and developed relationships with people who I never would have been involved with,” he says.
And, he says, it really does pay off. “Ultimately, it’s the people who show up who have influence.”

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