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Everything You Need to Know about the Art of Online Petitioning

OUTREACH HELP LINE - Last Tuesday’s column urged neighborhood councils to put some bite behind their bark though the use of free online petition sites.
The most popular petitions on the sites, as you might guess, focus on emotional national and international issues often dealing with human rights, the environment, and animals.  But the sites are used for local issues too.
 
In Scotland, where a single person can submit a petition, some of the current hot causes include:  (1) protection for third parties in the planning process, (2) reviewing the government’s smoking ban, and (3) reviewing coastal erosion protocols.
 
Also in the UK, the Bristol City Council is being asked to stop a Papa John's takeaway from opening without planning consent.  Bristol has its own petitioning process. 
 
A petition on one of the online sites is pressuring the city of Orlando to let the Tasty Tuesdays food truck event back on the street.
 
Some people in New York City are trying to abolish or amend the 1926 Cabaret Law that makes it illegal to dance in most bars, restaurants, and clubs. Petition organizers charge that the law was an attempt at the time to use police to restrict interracial mixing. 
 
The Friends of the Los Angeles River are petitioning the State Senate to end a requirement that visitors to the river have a permit.
 
And more than 2,000 signed a petition to allow beekeeping in residential districts in Los Angeles.  On top of that they convinced 11 neighborhood councils to cast supporting votes.
 
Here are some tips for successful petitioning:
 
● Choose an achievable and relevant goal, and be able to explain to people how it affects them.  
 
● Begin by contacting the person you’re hoping will take action, and offer a mutually-beneficial deal.  You start a polite petition calling for action, and then the politician happily responds and commends the participatory democracy process.
 
● Set a realistic signature goal.  It’s better to start with a modest goal and exceed it.
 
● Use some neighborhood council funds to buy advertising with CityWatch, Google, Facebook, and local newspapers.  It’s an outreach opportunity.  It’s easier to get people to participate in your neighborhood council by giving them something productive to do than asking them to sit around like bumps on a log at one of your meetings.
 
● Keep the message simple.  Don’t use big words or “insider” lingo.  This is often a problem for people who know too much about the subject.  Have your mother review your draft first.  If you feel the need to provide more detail, include a link.
 
● Insert a photo because a picture is truly worth a thousand words.
 
● Spellcheck your draft, and remember that only crazy people type in all caps.
 
● Write letters to editors.
 
● Keep your supporters and the media informed of your progress.
 
● Because politicians love media attention, present the signatures to a supportive elected official in a public way that involves visuals and an outpouring of love.
 
A search on Google will uncover quite a few possible sites to use, such as (1) www.change.org, (2) www.thepetitionsite.com, (3) www.Gopetition.com, and (4) www.ipetitions.com.  
 
A good project for college students, with neighborhood council supervision, would be to analyze, summarize, and comment on each of the available sites.  
 
In the meantime, check out this review of some of the sites.
 
Critics of online petitioning complain that it’s too easy.  It’s not a real accomplishment for people.  
 
My feeling is that any method of public participation is better than no participation at all.  It’s one way among many for neighborhood councils to build social capital.
 
(Greg Nelson is a former general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, was instrumental in the creation of the LA Neighborhood Council System, served as chief of staff for former LA City Councilman Joel Wachs …  and occasionally writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])
-cw
 
 
 
 
 
CityWatch
Vol 11 Issue 4
Pub: Jan 11, 2013