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Archive for Sunday, June 20, 1999

RESIDENTS HAVE EFFECTED CHANGES

June 20, 1999

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Lawrence residents can affect their city government -- with persistence and hard work.

Ready to take on city hall?

It's not an impossible task -- especially judging from the recent successes of groups in Lawrence that have pushed their agendas through the labyrinth of local government.

Then again, no one said it's easy.

"Most people think you can't fight city hall; they give up too easily," said Ben Zimmerman, a retired Kansas University professor of social welfare who was part of an effort to change antidiscrimination laws in Lawrence. "Never give up."

Persistence can pay off. It did for Citizens for Public Transportation, a Lawrence coalition that finally will see fulfillment of its dream of a fixed-route bus system in Lawrence.

Earlier this month, the Lawrence City Commission agreed to start a fixed-route public transportation system that will run at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week. The decision came after years of work by Citizens for Public Transportation.

Simply Equal, a community coalition, proposed an amendment to the city's human relations policies that called for outlawing discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on sexual orientation. The city commission approved the amendment in 1995.

Organization leaders say it takes hard work, but ordinary people can effect change at city hall.

Driving for transportation

Mary Michener, the chair of Citizens for Public Transportation, is planning to ride the first bus in the city's new public transit system.

The group can't take all the credit for the new system, she said. A couple of other factors jelled to help make passage possible: There is now strong support for the system from KU, and newly passed state aid for transportation is available.

Still, the group had an effect on the outcome, Michener said.

"What we have tried to do is get the whole community involved," she said.

Apparently the idea worked. In a survey conducted two years ago for the city, 58 percent of Lawrence residents polled said they were in favor of a bus system. When the most recent survey was conducted, 78 percent of the respondents said they supported it and many indicated a willingness to pay more taxes for it.

Citizens for Public Transportation formed in 1996 when members broke off from the League of Women Voters of Lawrence-Douglas County. It courted and supported city commission candidates sympathetic to the cause.

There are about 60 people on the Citizens for Public Transportation mailing list; around 20 show up regularly for meetings.

A lot of work

Since 1996, the group has met regularly. It researched transportation studies, similar cities' systems, costs and possible funding. It gathered signatures from more than 4,000 people supporting a fixed-route bus system. It invited transportation experts to speak and hosted forums for local organizations to talk about how a bus system would assist them.

"We didn't do it alone," Michener said. Instead, the group reached out to other organizations in the community -- student groups and community agencies -- for help.

"You don't just pursue one avenue," she said. "When I hear about something that's relevant, I go."

Many organizations the group contacted weren't interested or ready to support it. But some did.

"Some things fail -- you just don't know," she said. "You just keep trying."

One secret to the group's success was keeping the issue in front of the public.

"Don't let it fade away," Michener said. "You must keep it going by reminders."

During the spring city commission elections, public transportation was an issue. Michener talked to each of the candidates.

"I met with each one of them individually for an hour," she said.

Michener is convinced her group helped change the community's attitude toward and awareness of public transportation. Its work mattered; activism is important, she said.

"(People) think 'What does it matter?'" Michener said. "It matters. ... Individuals can do it."

Simply Equal

The group Simply Equal used some of the same approaches for a totally different kind of issue.

Zimmerman, co-chair of Simply Equal, said getting the amendment passed took work.

"It took two years of a lot of work," he said.

The group gathered community support and information.

"We wanted to get as much community support as possible," he said. "We knew we had to impress the city commission with the kind of support we had."

Group members worked to get a majority of votes on the city commission -- three of the five members -- to pass the amendment. Three out of five may sound easy, but it took an all-out effort.

"Our entire strategy was focused at trying to convince the city commission," Zimmerman said.

The group gave commissioners notebooks filled with information about the cause. Members talked at meetings and made presentations. In the end, they took part in the campaign to get a commissioner friendly to the cause elected.

"We did everything we could think of," Zimmerman said.

Still, not everything worked.

"It was difficult. We went through discouraging times," he said.

In the end, Zimmerman said, passage of the amendment wasn't due solely to the work of the group, either. Part of it was just plain luck, he said.

Local politics

John Nalbandian, a KU professor of public administration and a former mayor, can remember other effective groups that have lobbied city hall -- from neighborhood organizations to groups representing drainage areas.

"If you work hard and if you have a legitimate issue, you will get something done," he said.

The groups that succeeded came to city hall with legitimate problems, reasonable perspectives and a willingness to contribute.

"At that point, the city commission has to listen," Nalbandian said.

Groups need community support too, though.

"A lobbying effort to the city commission that doesn't reflect a larger community view isn't going to be effective," he said.

Lobbying the city commission isn't an easy task, he said, but it can be effective.

"Citizenship is hard work," he said. "People think that being a good citizen is just voting, and it's not. Who gets anything that they don't work for?"

Many people, he said, draw their conclusions about representative government from the nation's capital. But while Washington, D.C., is a focus of democracy, the wrong impressions of government can be bred there.

"I think that people " conclude that they're not going to have any influence over any level of politics," Nalbandian said.

That isn't true at the local level, he said.

"City commissioners are so much more accessible, and the issues are so much more tangible," he said.

Still working

Citizens for Public Transportation isn't finished yet. Michener said the organization still has work to do. The group is trying to get other organizations with transportation needs involved in the city system. Michener wants to make sure the community gets out to support the bus system once it is here.

"Oh, you'll love riding the bus," she said.

-- Felicia Haynes' phone message number is 832-7173. Her e-mail address is fhaynes@ljworld.com.

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