As many of you reading this know, I have been an evangelist for planners getting involved in the legislative process. I used my tenure as the APA Illinois Chapter's Legislative Chair to build interest and engagement in the legislative process. We had some successes, we had some misses, but I do believe those efforts built awareness among Illinois’ planning professional community. What I want to offer you the reader, and the new APA-IL Legislative Committee leadership and members, is a blueprint for building upon what we started all those years ago that culminated in Planners Legislative Action Day, affectionately known as PLAD, as well as the legislative action alerts we emailed out to fuel planner engagement in the legislative process.
First, however, I want to address a common issue many planners face: the decision on whether you as a planner should get involved in the legislative or punt and let what will be, be? This is a fair question. It’s also a limiting question. Public sector planners, and even private sector planners, may be resistant to engaging in the legislative process because of local politics. That is a real concern and one that each planner needs to navigate on their own and with their organization. However, you do not lose your First Amendment rights because you are a public sector planner or private sector planner working with the public sector. Further, you possess important knowledge that can help shape percolating legislation in Springfield or with APA-IL's legislative initiatives. Not using your knowledge to improve planning and zoning processes and practice in Illinois is akin to professional irresponsibility. That may sound harsh, but it is true. Most legislators have no idea what planners do, or even what benefits planning and land use regulations may mean for their communities. You do. Accordingly, to advance the profession you have a professional responsibility to be engaged.
Most legislators have no idea what planners do, or even what benefits planning and land use regulations may mean for their communities. You do.
Now that I have cleared that up, let’s take a look at how you can build an engagement strategy on your own and in concert with APA-IL's Legislative Committee that can be put to use at the next PLAD, which you should absolutely plan to attend.
APA-IL's Legislative Committee
The APA-IL Legislative Committee is where the Chapter’s legislative action starts. The Legislative Committee has been a working committee that serves as an information clearinghouse on legislation that affects or may affect the planning profession and practice in Illinois. The Committee has issued Legislative Alerts via email to build awareness on relevant legislation, recommend a position, and encourage members to contact their legislators. More recently, emails have provided a web-based tool, through the national American Planning Association, to simplify contact with legislators. Legislative Alerts are issued during the active legislative session (January - May) and sometimes during the fall Veto Session (October - November). The Legislative Committee has also taken the lead on organizing PLAD.
Engaging Legislators and Being Engaged in the Broader Legislative Process
Believe it or not, your legislators want to hear from you. They actually run intending to represent the interests of their constituents and want to hear from you, especially if you have knowledge on subjects they often don’t share.
Your work does not begin and end in your own state House and Senate districts. It should also involve engaging legislators from other districts near and far, because of the variety of ways legislators can be involved in the legislative process. They may be sponsors or co-sponsors of a bill, they may serve on relevant House or Senate Committees, or be in leadership.
The following serves as a guide to engaging your own and other legislators:
Know the Territory. Understand the legislator(s) district(s), including the socio-economic profile, major industries and employers, public and private institutions, and other characteristics that shape how the legislator may vote.
Get Personal. Uncover the legislator(s) own personal background, including educational background, profession, prior offices they may have held, and overall experience with the legislative process and voting patterns.
Understand Political Leanings. Understand the legislator(s) political leanings and frame your message to them using words that resonate, for instance, with left leaning members, use words like “equity”, “affordability”, “opportunity” and for right leaning legislators, use words and terms like “regulatory barriers”, “market driven”, and “growth”.
Use Google. Research the legislator(s) passions by looking at speeches they have given, organizations they are involved with, articles they have written, or floor speeches they may have given.
Leverage Your Connections. Mine your personal contacts to see whether they have any relationship with the legislator(s) and see how you may be able to leverage that relationship to get an audience with the legislator(s) and most effectively engage them.
While the one on one with your local legislator is a very important part of legislative advocacy, it is important to build a robust engagement strategy for the broader workings of the General Assembly. The following serve as a guide for that effort:
Target, as noted above, key committees that routinely hold hearings on bills with relevance to planning practice and the profession.
Identify House and Senate leadership, including floor leaders who are able to “whip” member votes, and do the deep dive research mentioned above into their personal backgrounds and whether you have avenues through your network to reach out to them.
Find legislative “champions” to support your advocacy.
Utilize grassroots action with likeminded organizations such as CMAP, MPC, AIA, ITIA, and IML to create a “force multiplier” effect that can significantly bolster your legislative efforts.
Cultivate the “grasstops” who are emerging or established legislative or community leaders who can influence the legislative process in a desirable direction.
Develop a communication strategy and build your story, while avoiding jargon, on the reason for your position on a piece of legislation or your legislative initiative, and condense that story into an elevator pitch that you can share with legislators.
Finally, be very clear and concise in what you are asking the legislator to do.
Yes, this is a lot of work, but it is critically important work when you consider that almost everything we do as planners is enabled and shaped by state law. Being part of the process of shaping how those laws are written or advocating for or against legislation is a responsibility we have as planning professionals. Seize it!
One last thing, have I mentioned you should attend at least one of Illinois' PLAD events during your career?
David Silverman, AICP is an Equity Partner at Ancel Glink in Chicago, IL. David is co-chair of Ancel Glink’s Zoning and Land Use Group and co-editor of the group’s e-newsletter, In the Zone. David also serves as moderator for the Zoning and Land Use Group’s Twitter site, @AncelGlinkLand.
David is involved with several organizations that promote better land use and development practices. David has served on the Executive Board of the Illinois Chapter of the American Planning Association as its Legislative Committee Chair and as the Education and Outreach Chair for the Planning and Law Division of the American Planning Association. In addition, David is also a member of the Ely Chapter (Chicago) of Lambda Alpha International, Urban Land Institute, and is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.
In addition to his involvement with various land use and development organizations, David also teaches the Land Use Control and Zoning class at the UIC John Marshall Law School.
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