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The Planet

Giving Politicians Report Cards

The Planet, April 1997, Volume 4, number 3

By Larry Bohlen

Sierra Club activists concerned about sprawl in Prince George's County, Md., asked themselves a key question: "How can we best use our limited volunteer time to reverse land use trends in place for over 40 years?" Recognizing that most land use decisions are local, these volunteers chose to go head-to-head with county council members who had been giving preference to developer profits, not community concerns. Unable to match developers' financial resources, activists looked for tools that would help level the playing field.

Led by the Sierra Club, community and environmental groups throughout the county devised a report card listing the council members' votes on several sprawl-related issues. These included a bill to protect the Belt Woods, a songbird habitat threatened by development; a reinvestment tax credit for existing properties; and a bill opposing a Redskins football stadium zoning exception. A few days after the report card was released, the county council reversed its original "no" vote on protecting the Belt Woods. A few months later, the Club and its new partner, the Prince George's County League of Environmental Voters, defeated an attempt by the local building lobby to reduce developer contributions toward school construction.

The report card also had an unanticipated result: Council member Walter Maloney, who received the highest grade, is taking action on his own to remove a long-opposed highway from the county master plan. He even contacted the Sierra Club to be sure this vote would be included on the next report card.

Grading politicians' voting records is one of the best ways to show the public who is voting on their side when it comes to taxes, quality of life and the environmental impact of sprawl. A report card format is effective because:

  • It can be completed by a few volunteers in a short amount of time.
  • TV stations, radio stations and newspapers love to carry stories on the performance of elected officials.
  • It is easily understood by the public.
  • It gives politicians feedback -- both positive and negative -- rather than just criticizing their behavior.

Prince George's County activists intend to use the grades on the report cards as a strong indicator of which council members deserve a Sierra Club endorsement. They also intend to pass the grades on to their chapter if any council member chooses to run for higher office.

For a sample copy of the Prince George's County environmental report card and a two-page factsheet on how to create your own, contact Larry Bohlen at (301) 445-1548; e-mail: <>

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