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Stop Sprawl

Winning Public Accountability with a Community and Environmental Report Card

A report card on the voting records of public officials is one of the surest ways to focus attention on your issues. Typically, after the report card is released to the public, responsiveness to your future requests before an elected body will increase and concern about your group’s opinion on other issues will rise.

A report card is a valuable tool because:

  1. It can be completed by a few volunteers in a short amount of time (3-6 months)
  2. TV, radio and newspapers love to carry stories on the performance of elected officials
  3. It is easily understood by the public from a first-grader to a retiree.
  4. It offers room for improvement the next time around, rather than just criticizing behavior

A report card can be completed in several easy steps:

1) Form a Group: call together many allies who have first-hand experience or interest in the type of issues that you think should go on the report card. Send letters of invitation with a basic project outline. Ask people to be participants - either as direct volunteers, or if not, then as advisors. Aim for a core group of at least five people. Invite leaders of prominent environmental and civic groups who already have the respect of the community and of public officials. This will help give credibility, will assist in identifying issues and will be valuable later when it is time to distribute the report card far and wide.

College interns can assist with many of the tasks above and should be recruited as soon as you decide to produce a report card. You can seek their help in Political Science, Public Policy and Computer Graphics departments.

2) Define Your Issues: This is similar to writing a value or mission statement. At the first meeting, work with the group to outline a set of issues that will serve as a guide to the types of votes that you want to include. Many people have different perspectives on what is good for the health of the community and the environment. This is a valuable step that can save time later. Make this a fun brainstorming exercise.

3) Establish Volunteer Roles: At the first meeting, appoint a Group Facilitator, a Lead Researcher, a Recorder to log and communicate decisions and to obtain feedback from advisors, a Publicist to write press releases and arrange a press conference, a Graphic Artist to design the report card and get it to a printer. Also choose a name for the group that relates to the region (e.g. Prince George’s League of Environmental Voters).

4) Research: Compile a list of all bills and resolutions in a given year (or other convenient time-period) and bring to the second meeting. Reduce the list to a manageable size by selecting votes that look relevant to your issues. Reduce to a manageable list through Group consensus. Lists of bills as well as free copies of all bills and resolutions should be available to local residents from the clerk’s office. Meeting transcripts or tapes should also be available.

5) Summarize: Ask group members to provide a short write-up to others with information on:

  • What the bill or resolution does
  • How it impacts the environment or community and why this is important
  • What the final vote was with names and date of the vote

Summaries will aid decision making and will be the basis for your report.

6) Choose the Top Issues: At the third meeting, review summaries and select 20 or fewer issues based upon the following criteria:

Can the issue be related to your overall goals for your region and can it be easily articulated for the sake of the press and the public? When dealing with a complex issue, try to tie it back to fundamental community and environmental goals.

Does the vote differentiate among elected officials? A 5-4 vote shows that some officials were more committed than others to that issue. A 9-0 vote shows that either it was an easy vote (so not much credit is earned or tough issues were worked out earlier in the debate). If so, dig deeper for information, looking for voice votes or resolutions that may appear in the meeting record but not in the final reporting.

A vote for recycling is typically an easy one that requires little thought, whereas a vote to down-zone farm acreage to create an agricultural reserve would probably be a tough one because of developer pressure.

Were they asked to vote a certain way? It is better that officials were asked to take action on each vote to avoid claims that, "If they had only known, then they might have voted the other way." This may not be possible if this is your first report card, but certainly is for future report cards.

7) Create a Report Card Draft: Compile a draft from your top issues and circulate it among all group members. Ask for comments on content and format. Include names of those that agree to be listed as participants (making sure to note that they are listed for identification purposes only).
Include preliminary grades. Percentages work to help you assess grades, but letter-grades are better for releasing to the public. Don’t be afraid to fail many officials the first time! Chances are that they deserve it and will need the prod to do better.

8) Final Draft: At your fourth meeting, take comments received from all and incorporate into a final draft. Make sure to vote on areas of disagreement to firmly commit the entire group to the final results. If you have time, send the final draft out for one more round of review with explanations of any tough decisions that were made. You may catch last minute errors and you will maintain good will among all participants. Get a final nod from your core group and send to the printer.

9) Release Your Results! Hold one last meeting to plan your media blitz.

  • Meet with the editorial board of the most prominent paper to let them know that a report card is coming out. Give reasons why the project is important and release general details but do not give out results. You can say, "Four council members failed and five passed," but do not say how each person performed. This can lead to more prominent coverage of the release and possibly to an editorial accompanying the report card news!
  • Write a media advisory and release one to two business days before a press conference
  • Write a press release and send it out by fax the day of the press event. Bring plenty of copies to the event and assign one person to distribute to all members of the press.
  • Deliver a personally addressed letter immediately after the press conference to each elected official. You do not want them to steal your story by being the first to get to the press. You can invite TV cameras to go with you to give them a good visual story.
  • Mail to local civic groups, political clubs, environmental groups that did not participate (maybe they will want to next year), other elected officials (such as municipal officials, many of whom aspire to higher office and will be affected by your framing of the issues).
  • Most likely, the officials who do not like the grades they receive will attack the report card as invalid or narrow and special interest in focus. Since your group is representing a broad public interest, these claims should not be allowed to go unanswered. Respond to all public attacks.

10) Use the Report Card:
When a critical issue arises, poll your group to see if they think it should be a future report card issue.  If it is, you can write letters to officials on behalf of the group identifying the issue as one that may be listed on a future report card and recommend how they should vote. This will give them pause.

  • You can also write letters to the editor on behalf of the Report Card group.
  • You can also arrange meetings or testify before officials on behalf of the group.
  • Make sure to release a report card just prior to an election if one is coming up, although early in the term of officials is also good to give them time to establish a track record.

Legal Considerations - 501(c)3 vs 501(c)4: Because a report card which includes grades and specific issues is considered political action by the IRS, a 501(c)3 group such as the Izaak Walton League should not commit funds to the project, including distribution through their newsletters. Funds and fundraising should go through the 501(c)4 partner such as the Sierra Club.

Volunteers from all groups are not prohibited from participating, from listing their names and affiliations, from distributing the scorecard on their own, from assisting a 501(c)4 in fund-raising, or from writing news articles about the results compiled by the report card group!

See a sample Environmental Report Card from Maryland's Prince George's County

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