Let's say that your local planning commission approves a developer's proposal to construct 400 new homes in your community. Farmland will have to be cut down, large areas of wetlands will have to be filled, traffic problems are guaranteed, and the local sewer plant is sure to be overwhelmed. And let's say that you, and most of your neighbors, are less than pleased. Or more likely, big time mad.
You can decide to respond in one of two ways.
First, you can resign yourself that even though you don't agree with the project, Town Hall wants it and so it is going to be built. You can tell yourself that there is nothing that can be done to correct this problem.
Or, you can decide that this project warrants opposition, and you are just the person to organize a grass-roots anti-project stance. A new tax exempt group, "Some-of-us Opposing Silliness," or "SOS" is formed, and it becomes SOS against the proposed wrongful development.
It seems that with increasing frequency, "regular" people (we are all regular) are learning that they can really make a difference. Whether it is working to uncover corruption that resulted in illegitimate permit approvals, or revealing wrongful assumptions that allowed local regulators to authorize wetlands destruction or other environmental harm, informed local groups can and do make a difference.
There are as many different kinds of groups as there are questionable projects. But having served as an attorney to several of these citizen groups (a generic term often used to describe them), I find that there are some common factors shared by the more successful organizations. The following six points should be considered by any organizer.
Point 1. Concrete Objectives
Before you fight the fight, make sure that the group agrees on a few common, ultimate goals. Do you want to kill the project, or just trim it? Or, perhaps will a different use, or mixed use do? Or, in extreme cases, do you want the local prosecutor to investigate an act of alleged corruption? I believe that this point is the most important one. You simply will never win if you did not agree, in advance, on exactly what will constitute a win. I think that most citizen groups that fail do so because they have failed to concretely define their objectives.
Point 2. Get The Word Out
To be effective, you need to get your story out, over and over again. You need to do this to attract group members and to gather public support and political interest. If no one knows about your group, your group will go no where.
Point 3. Raise Cash
Many citizen group fights require experts and lawyers. Let's face it, the other side will always have experts and lawyers, and therefore you need to have them as well. While some of these services are often donated, you will usually need to hire a lawyer and some experts. Fund raising is a must. I have seen garage sales, coin tosses and talent shows. Some groups charge their members small membership fees.
Of course, not everyone who supports your group will do so for exactly the same reason. For example, local merchants may help your group oppose a strip mall because doing so is good for their business. You need to decide where you draw the line.
Point 4. Have One Spokesperson
The press will usually be attracted to groups opposing high profile projects. You need to speak with a common voice. Therefore, have one spokesperson.
Point 5. Delegate Responsibilities
Everyone is good at something, no one is good at everything. The group must split up tasks. One member may do press releases. One may lead fund raising. One may find experts and legal counsel. Perhaps issues can be divided so that one member handles environmental challenges, another handles political issues, etc.
Point 6. Keep Disagreements Within The Family
Your group needs to be well organized and needs to develop a mechanism for resolving disputes. While you should have vibrant internal discussions, you should appear to together to the public, including the press.
You can fight Town Hall. And if you are fighting a just fight, nothing beats winning.