The ultimate, no-nonsense guide to testifying before city leaders

COLUMBIA, Mo 10/15/05 (ARCHIVE) -- Back in 2005, a Columbia citizens group called TARRIF wrote and used this guide to claim a series of major political victories.   

They learned from experience that winning in Columbia meant going against a good ol' boy status quo with highly-evolved dirty tricks that could only be successful if group members took the barbs, jabs, name-calling, and other put-downs personally. 

The Columbia Heart Beat published the guide on our then-strictly listserv newsletter.  Painfully-honest with no-holds barred, it's reprinted here as the same old boy tactics once again rear their ugly heads

Many people have questions about how to address the Council.   Try these helpful hints.  If they don't work for you, don't take it personally. 

1.  Forget anything you remember from High School Civics about representative democracy or "the voice of the people."

2.  The Columbia City Council doesn't want to hear from anybody with whom they disagree.   Don't take it personally. 

3.  Choose your battles carefully.   Be sure they are important to your organization or neighborhood.

4.  Don't testify too often.  It is quick and easy to use up your political capital.   If you testify too often, you will be labeled a "gadfly" and nothing you say will be taken seriously.

5. Don't get your hopes up.  Generally, City Council members have already made up their minds.  Your testimony is a mere formality to lend them credibility.   Don't assume they want to spend much time on it.

6.  When you have an issue that warrants Council testimony, meet with other supporters to strategize.   Divide your issue into no more than five segments so each person can cover one portion.  This helps prevent repetition.  Remember:  the Council was probably bored with you BEFORE you stood up.    

7.  Your group should have 5-10 speakers max.  

8. The designated speakers should seat themselves along the aisles for fast access to the testimony line-up.  One of the "regulars" (some say "gadflies" or "civically obsessed") may grab one of your slots, even if the issue is of extreme importance to your organization or neighborhood and no importance to them.   Don't take it personally.

9. Everyone should have the right to speak.  But various limits the Mayor can impose may make the numbers, from time allotted to speakers permitted, unfair.  Your Council member should recognize the situation and intervene.   But don't count on it.

10. Prepare your testimony carefully.  Keep coverage narrow and to the point.  To avoid reading testimony, make notes using key phrases.  This will also keep you from wandering off and using up valuable time. 

11. Time your remarks using a battery-operated timer.   If you have 3 minutes, aim for 2 1/2 minutes so you can finish BEFORE the Mayor's buzzer goes off.  This will keep you relaxed, and the Council might like you a little better.

12.  Look Council members in the eye while testifying. 

13.  Your opponents may call you names and attack your character at the hearing.   You will not be given an opportunity to refute them.   Don't expect the Mayor or even your own Council member to do it for you.  Remember, they only notice when you take things personally -- not when your opponents make things personal.

14.  During Council comments, more than one Council member may mis-state an issue or cite "facts" that are untrue.  You will not have the opportunity to set the record straight.  Your own Council member may or may not do this for you. 

15. The Council does not always follow its own rules.  When that happens, only a Council member can call for a "point of order."  Robert's Rules says dues-paying members can call for points of order, but that doesn't mean you.  Don't confuse your taxes with dues.

16. The City Attorney may give a legal opinion on the issue at hand or on the conduct of the meeting.  Do not mistake his opinion for how a judge might rule on the law.  You'll never find out if the City Attorney is right unless you sue, and suing the City is the ultimate form of taking things personally. 

17. The City Attorney's job is to defend the City, the City Council, and all City commissions, committees, officers and employees whenever you disagree with them.  This is legal, not personal. 

18.  If you don't succeed, don't take it personally.   Things can get downright mean on the road to victory.  Remember what a former Council member told a resident during his testimony before the Council: "I'd explain it to you, but you're not smart enough to understand."

19. Consider what the Mayor and Council want you to do, from taking things personally to going their way regardless.  Don't!

20.  Most of all, whatever happens, don't take it personally.   Taking attacks, snarky remarks, rude behavior, or wicked op-eds personallly in a political or business environment is like letting them see you sweat, or throwing chum in shark-infested water.   Once you do, you're done. 


Subscribe to Our Newsletter

The Columbia HeartBeat