MANALAPAN - New Jersey Assemblywoman Amy Handlin gave out the keys to unlock government doors to anyone who came to listen at Monmouth County Library headquarters Sunday afternoon.
Handlin, who represents District 13 (which includes Holmdel and Middletown), presented her new book "Be Your Own Lobbyist: How to Give Your Small Business Big Clout with State and Local Government", though her talk was more informative than promotional in nature.
"For about 20 years, I've been helping small businesspeople and citizens who are completely frustrated with government, whether it's government in their town, or government in their county, or government in the state, or government at the federal level," said Handlin.
"They find it extremely confusing, it's full of all kinds of Byzantine processes and jargon that people who aren't in government can't understand and don't want to be bothered with, and I realized that it is far more frustrating for ordinary people than a lot of people realize."
Finding herself giving the same advice to people time and again and wanting to help the general public understand the seemingly labrynthian bodies that govern them, Handlin set out to create a guidebook.
"Whether you live in Oregon, Ohio, New Jersey, or Florida, it's the same kinds of problems," Handlin said of the issues her book tackles.
A couple of the greatest roadblocks according to Handlin are that too many people think it's hard to get to know officials, or they're intimidated by the trappings of power.
"Public officials work for us, the public, and it is never difficult to find ways to interact informally with your municipal officials, and your county officials, and your state officials," said Handlin.
In her presentation, Assemblywoman Handlin explained there is a multitude of tools available for contacting public officials, and urged her audience to attend town meetings and also use the phone and email to build rapport with their local, state and federal officials.
"The more open doors you have, the more of an opportunity you have to get the help you need faster and easier, said Handlin. "It's much easier when there's some established contact."
Manalapan Mayor Andrew Lucas attended the Assemblywoman's speech and agreed that most residents don't even know where to begin to look when addressing the issues that matter most to them.
"I think one of the most common things that you'll find is a resident that will come and contact town hall for an item that's handled at the state level," said Lucas.
Lucas encouraged Manalapan residents to contact his office regarding any matter, stating that even if their issue didn't pertain to his municipality, his staff would be happy to point them in the right direction.
Tricia Murch of Oakhurst, owner of Permit Solutions, came to figure out who to contact in regard to her company's desire to coordinate permits in large projects such as the closing of Fort Monmouth, which concerns three separate municipalities as well as officials on the state and federal level.
"It's difficult to know who to go to, who the top person is to talk to, who that one person is who will open the door for me," said Murch.
Handlin was happy to help Murch during a question and answer period following her presentation.
"I was told to start with the Monmouth County economic development committee and start with the freeholders, and I think the best thing to do probably is to write letters and follow it up with personal contact, so I can sell myself," said Murch.
Handlin finished her presentation by expressing that government should be accessible to anyone, no matter what their issue, and insisted people get involved.
"Get out there, get lobbying," said Handlin. "It's not only your right as a citizen, but you will learn a lot in the process, and you'll help make a better government."
Handlin's handbook is certainly making Mayor Lucas' reading list.
"I would certainly recommend anyone that has an interest, whether they're a small business or whether they're someone that has an issue that they feel passionate about, this book that the assemblywoman has written would be a great start for them," said Lucas.
Handlin's follow up to "Be Your Own Lobbyist" comes out in a few months, and will be entitled "Government Grief: How to Help Your Small Business Survive Mindless Regulation, Political Corruption and Red Tape".
More tips and quotes from Assemblywoman Handlin on lobbying government officials are available below.
From Amy Handlin's presentation on "Be Your Own Lobbyist: How to Give Your Small Business Big Clout with State and Local Government":
- Calm down
- Confirm the facts
- Act thoughtfully
- Be positive
- Be polite
"You get angry because things that the government does really matter. They can cost you a lot of money. They can be the difference between success and failure if you're running a small business and you need a permit or you need a license, so we're not talking about small, trivial, unimportant matters here."
Confirm the facts
"Don't just listen to people who may have had problems with your local zoning board, or in trying to get some answers from the mayor. Whatever happened to them may be relevant, but it may not be relevant. You should always confirm the facts that are significant to your situation before you try to take any kind of action."
"It doesn't ever help to act emotionally, to act without thinking, to act in a knee jerk way."
"I've been around long enough to know it's hard to be positive when all you're hearing is no, no, no, go away. You feel like you're unwelcome and everyone wants you to disappear. However, the truth is that government officials are human."
"It can certainly never hurt, and while politeness of itself won't get you what you want, it will help you in being taken seriously, and in getting officials to want to spend a little extra time with you."
Know Your Rights
- Undivided attention
- Clarification of terms, forms or processes
- Access to a person, not just a voicemail
- Complete, comprehensible answers to reasonable questions
- Explanation of FOI mechanisms
- Individual email or telephone extensions
"You do have an absolute right to the absolute attention of officials. If you find that a particular official elected or otherwise is texting when he or she is interacting with you, is looking over your shoulder to see who else is in line, is doing anything other than giving you the attention you deserve, find somebody else. Ask to talk to that person's associate or boss, because that is something that is owed to you."
Clarification of terms, forms or processes
"Government officials have their own language. Whenever you are an expert at something, you lose sight of the fact that other people aren't. When you go into a government office and someone shoves a form under your nose that you can't understand with a bunch of terminology that some lawyer dreamed up that means absolutely zero to the average person, you shouldn't feel pressured to try and deal with that by yourself."
Access to a person, not just a voicemail
"If you get into one of those awful voicemail loops or you send emails to some black box and you never get a response, pick yourself up, get out from behind the computer, go to city hall, wherever it is that legislative office of your state representative, whoever it is that you need to interact with and ask politely but forcefully to see someone in person."
Complete, comprehensible answers to reasonable questions
"You have a right to understand exactly what is being asked of you, specifically what is being charged to you as a taxpayer for the services of government. If you have questions, you have a right to get answers, and you have a right to get those answers in writing if that's what you need, so never hesitate to ask for that."
Explanation of FOI mechanisms
"Everyone as a citizen of the United States has a right to obtain public records, documents, that show how money is spent at every level of government and the basis on which decisions are made. Different states have slightly different versions of the federal FOI laws. Here in New Jersey, our laws are pretty good. They're not perfect, but they're pretty effective and if you need to see some kind of document that is not readily available, you have a right to either ask for it at town hall or go online and look for instructions as to how to file necessary paperwork to get your hands on what would otherwise be inaccessable or hidden information."
Individual email or telephone extensions
"Sometimes people have problems because they shoot off an email and the email seems to disappear into the ether. Somebody never responds to it, we have no idea where it went, all you know is you never got an answer to your question. You have a right to obtain individual email addresses and individual telephone extensions for anyone you'd like. That is a very basic type of information that you should be able to get in a matter of minutes. No one in any level of government can deny that information to you."