Advocacy Guide for Municipal Officials (adapted for COVID-19)
We encourage all local officials to advocate on behalf of their municipalities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Affecting policy is a vital endeavor and is only successful when citizens – and especially local officials – are involved.
The Vermont legislature began meeting remotely in March 2020. It currently meets in a hybrid format as the pandemic continues with no end to it in sight. This guide highlights changes the state legislature made to move to hybrid in-person and remote operations. It also explains how your advocacy efforts need to change to adapt to this new environment by including important information to help you effectively explain your concerns to legislators while they continue to meeting in a hybrid format.
- The earlier you present your needs and concerns to legislators, the more likely your message will affect new policy.
- Your involvement is always a crucial component of VLCT’'s year-round advocacy for municipal interests, but it’s now more important than ever for you to make legislators understand your municipality’s issues and priorities.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, the legislature moved legislative work online. Since then, all committee meetings and House and Senate floor sessions have been streamed on YouTube, giving the public access to free real-time and recorded video to all floor sessions, all committee meetings, and some chamber caucuses. Links to the daily committee streams can be found on each committee page and on the weekly committee agendas.
How to Communicate with Legislators. During a normal legislative session, the Vermont State House is a very busy place, full of lobbyists, students, tour groups, legislative and administrative staff, and constituents – all vying for the attention of legislators. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the regular dynamics of in-person advocating under the golden dome have been replaced by email, text, and phone, from one’s office or home to legislators who are doing the same. As of January 2022, the State House is open again, and some legislators are conducting business in person. While the House is meeting in a hybrid format, the Senate remains remote through February 25. The public is also welcome, provided they follow masking protocols and adhere to capacity requirements for each room of the State House, which are posted at each room’s entrance. Municipal officials may also attend meetings in person, but they may not have access to all legislators, given the current models of meeting.
Developing a relationship with your legislators is crucial to the success of your advocacy efforts.
- If you do not already know your legislators, introduce yourself. Invite them to one of your selectboard meetings or any community gathering to develop personal relationships.
- Be prepared, use your time effectively, and be respectful of their time.
- Prior to discussing your issues or asking for something, begin by acknowledging their hard work and service. As a public official, you know how much work it takes to serve your community, and they too are working hard.
- Understand and explain the issue. Make sure that before you talk to your legislator, you know the details of the issue and be aware of any arguments that counter your position.
- All politics are local. Connect the issue to your role and your community, and show your legislators the local effects of a bill or proposal. Be as specific and as factual as possible when stating your town’s opinion on the legislation. Use stories, numbers, and data to support your point.
- Anticipate questions and criticisms about your position and the potential cost of it. Emphasize that if the directive is not funded at the state level, it will require increased property taxes.
- Understand that you need a majority of House and Senate votes to pass a measure. The more support you can garner from disparate legislative entities, the better your chance of success.
- Start early, because timing is everything. Contacting your legislators to urge them to consider the municipal point of view doesn’t do any good if the votes have already been cast. Every bill goes through a committee process, so contacting the right person at the right time is crucial. Read VLCT’s Weekly Legislative Reports and watch for the timely Legislative Alerts and Updates that we publish during the session. And be sure to contact your Advocacy staff with any questions or concerns you may have. Karen Horn and Gwynn Zakov are here to help you!
Make Contact. Should you call, write, or participate in person? Personal contact is always the best way to communicate with legislators, and although in-person meetings are currently impractical for many, a phone call is a fast and easy way to connect with your legislator. Email leaves a record that can be stored and referred to later, but legislators receive numerous emails every day, and many go unread despite their best efforts. So if you send an email, follow up with a phone call to remind the legislator of your message. Follow these guidelines:
- Give credit and say thanks
- Be concise; offer solutions
- Make your conversation personal
- Give the local angle
- Be an accurate resource
- Don’t be a stranger
Provide Testimony. While the legislature is meeting in a hybrid manner, testifying is easier than ever. If you request or are asked to testify on a bill, you will have the opportunity to do so via Zoom video conferencing. A committee assistant will schedule you on the agenda and send you an email invitation. Other than being able to testify remotely, there are no changes to how committee meetings are conducted.
During testimony, address legislators as “Representative Smith” or “Senator Jones.” Clearly state your name and affiliation every time you speak and address your comments to the chairperson, or “Madame Chair” or “Mr. Chair.” The chair runs the meeting and is in charge in the committee “room.” It is not always possible for the chair to see everyone who raises a virtual hand or would like to speak in a Zoom meeting; thus, feel free to send the committee assistant a message asking to speak.
A professional appearance is important, even online! Speak clearly and be honest, accurate, and concise. You must be a credible source of information. It is, after all, your expertise and credibility that earn you a seat at the table. Know the answers before you are questioned. Do not try to guess at an answer. Instead, offer to find out the answer to the question or find someone who can accurately answer it. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “Be sincere, be brief, be seated.” Or, these days, be sincere, be brief, hit the mute button.
Follow Up. If a legislator asks for more information, provide it as soon as possible. Don’t hesitate to contact VLCT Advocacy staff for any information you may need. (And please keep VLCT and Advocacy staff informed!) Send an email thanking the chair for the opportunity to speak.
If you ask a legislator to take specific action, let them know what that action should be and when it is needed.
Use the Media. Legislators read their local newspapers, listen to the radio, watch television, and follow electronic media, including Front Porch Forum. Write a thank-you note in the form of a letter to the editor or a post on social media. Write an opinion piece. Seek an interview opportunity to get your point across to the public as well as to the legislature. Understand that journalists work on tight schedules and will seek opinions that may be different from your own. That is their job. Make sure they have the facts from you. This builds your credibility as a reliable source to whom they will want to return for future stories.
VLCT Municipal Advocacy
Legislative Principles. The Vermont League of Cities and Towns advocates for policies that support:
- authority, autonomy, and discretion on municipal matters exercised at the local level;
- financial and technical resources to ensure public health and safety to municipal constituents;
- enhanced quality of life, equity and inclusion for all Vermonters; and
- fiscal accountability and responsibility at all levels of government.
These principles recognize the common goals of all 246 member cities and towns of VLCT. Every year, advocacy initiatives tie back to these principles.
Policy Committees. The VLCT Municipal Policy guides the actions of the board of directors and the advocacy staff in the Vermont Legislature and at the federal level as needed. The five policy committees review the municipal policy and recommend revisions in anticipation of the ensuing legislative biennium. The committees may also convene to address specific policy proposals or legislation.
- FAIR (Finance, Administration, and Intergovernmental Relations)
- Public Safety
- Quality of Life and Environment
- Water Quality
Policy committee members are municipal officials who have an interest in and a level of knowledge of the policies that the committees review. The VLCT president appoints members to the committees. If you want to join a policy committee, please notify Advocacy staff and watch for requests for volunteers during the summer after the end of the biennium.
Advocacy Staff. Your Advocacy team – Director of Public Policy and Advocacy Karen Horn and Municipal Policy Advocate Gwynn Zakov – represent municipal interests at the state and federal levels. During every legislative session, they follow issues that develop (or don’t) into bills and acts, looking out for and asserting the concerns of local government wherever appropriate. Karen and Gwynn also keep VLCT members apprised of this “sausage making” process in three formats:
- Weekly Legislative Reports. Each Friday afternoon during the legislative session, we publish a summary of the week’s legislative activity, post it on our website, and email our members a link to it.
- Biweekly Zoom Chats. On alternate Monday mornings during the legislative session, Karen and Gwynn host Zoom meetings in which they summarize the progress of legislation that specifically affects cities and towns and to hear what’s on the minds of our members.
- Legislative Alerts and Updates. We issue Legislative Alerts when legislators need to hear from municipal officials about a particular issue and time is of the essence. A Legislative Update provides the status of legislative activity and is chiefly informational, meaning you do not need to contact your legislators. When Advocacy staff testify, we provide links to written testimony, all of which are posted at the link above.
The VLCT Advocacy team also participates in state agency rule-making, quasi-judicial hearings, and permit processes. We collaborate with affiliated local government organizations such as the Green Mountain Water Environment Association, the Vermont Municipal Clerks’ and Treasurers’ Association, Vermont Town and City Managers’ Association, and the Vermont Planners Association. At the federal level, we work with Vermont’s congressional delegation and represent Vermont municipal interests in Congress and before federal agencies through VLCT’s membership in the National League of Cities.
To learn more about VLCT's Advocacy service area, explore the Advocacy tab at vlct.org.