Behind the Advocacy Curtain

“Advocacy is an activity by an individual or group that aims to influence decisions within political, economic, and social institutions. Advocacy includes activities and publications to influence public policy, laws and budgets by using facts, their relationships, the media, and messaging to educate government officials and the public.” 

This is the cold, neutral definition offered by Wikipedia. What is not defined is the emotional toll of the long hard fight with seldom any success at the end of the tunnel; the intellectual letdown when those in a position to make a difference do not recognize and adopt your logic; the righteousness of your cause and the cynicism that ensues when too many battles have been lost and money has trumped justice.

The other side of the coin is that there is no passion so absorbing (well, maybe love) as the “high” that comes with advocating for a cause and no endeavor so satisfying (well, maybe getting a degree) as that which comes from having mastered the intellectual underpinnings of the cause and no pleasure so sweet as having won a battle however small. Now for the practicalities.

Commitment – There are innumerable issues that deserve to be heard.  Make sure the one you choose is deserving of your commitment and one you are willing to engage for the long term.

Patience – There will be more losses than wins and with every failure you have to pick yourself up, review why you didn’t succeed, change your tactics, and look to another day.

Standing above the fray – You must learn to see the issue from how others perceive it; you must know and understand the arguments of your opponents and how to counter them; you must be able to know when the battle is lost; you must learn “when to leave them” as Kenny Rodgers advocates.

Now for the tactics: First, master your issue; get as much information as possible on the financial, social and political impact of instituting the reform you are advocating. Become equally as knowledgeable about the arguments of your opponents and how to counter them with hard facts. Second, know the major players in the fight. Who is the chair of the committee that will consider legislation involving your issue? Who are the members of his/her committee and what is their background? Choose your potential partners carefully. Third, recognize that without leverage you have probably lost the fight before you start.

I know the old adage about lighting one candle and how one person can make a difference and I’m sure that may be the case in isolated instances but those are few and far between and in certain venues are called miracles.

Politicians are moved by money (without it they don’t get elected) and numbers (without votes they don’t get elected). Align yourself with a like- minded group or help create one.

My efforts at advocating before legislative bodies in Maryland has been to lobby on behalf of common ownership communities (COCs) and the changes necessary if many COCs are to survive never mind thrive. Unfortunately, there are very few bills relating to COCs that make it through the legislative process every year. Many are filed but few are chosen. There are many reasons in my opinion for this sad state of affairs. One may be that the Maryland legislature only meets four months a year and barely has time to consider the larger issues (e.g. assisted suicide). When such issues are at the forefront, they absorb all the oxygen and attention. But I think the most important reason is that COCs are not organized. There is no organization of COCs whose leaders can stand before a politician and represent 500 (or even 50) COCs and 1,000 (or even 100) voting owners. There is no organization that can reach leaders and residents of COCs getting hundreds to write a letter to their legislators on an issue benefiting COCs. There is no organization that can rally voters to politicians who support the cause and no organization to hold them accountable when they fail to deliver. Money and numbers provide leverage without which the chances of success are greatly diminished.

How can COCs create leverage? There are three legal varieties of COCs: homeowners associations, condominium associations and cooperatives. The most urgent issues are those of condominium associations, especially mastered metered communities. The Montgomery County Department of Housing and Community Affairs (“DHCA”), with whom all COCs must register, has the number of COCs at over a thousand and approximately 35% are condominiums. The conundrum is how to even begin to organize such a number. How to identify them; contact them, organize them, and sustain the effort.

The first task is to develop a mission statement of sorts. Knowing what you are laboring for helps. What issues of condo associations badly need change? Upon analysis many of the issues will have a common denominator – money. A condominium association’s viability is dependent on the inflow of assessments sufficient to cover current operating and capital budgets. The field of battle is broad from how to shorten the amount of time it takes to collect delinquencies in a court action to mandating that lenders foreclose on a delinquent mortgage within a reasonable amount of time.

The next step is to decide on the structure of the organization that will represent the condominium associations.

Incidentally, such endeavors involve lawyers and lobbying is more effectively done by professionals with an army of volunteers to assist. Money is needed to underwrite these efforts. That has to be resolved or a credible plan developed on how to fund the cause. A grant might be an answer for the short term but longer term the organization will have to sustain itself. Dues?

One assumes that DHCA’s list is available for public viewing. If not, identifying the clients becomes labor intensive. Once contact information is obtained a letter can be sent to the president and manager of these associations.  If experience shows anything, only a minimum number – 5-10% will respond. Then begins the long slog of making contact. A variety of means will have to be employed, such as contacting residents you know to make the introduction, writing an article for the association’s newsletter, writing an article in a publication that many of them (especially managers) read, reaching out to managers, etc. Ultimately a pitch to the board of directors and residents will probably have to be made. If we reach that far we will be heartened (or disheartened) to know that we have simply engaged, now begins the battle.

If and when we begin to organize to assail the battlements of county, state and federal governments we hope many of you will join our merry little (or large) group.

By Marietta M. Ethier, ESQ.

 Marietta is a graduate of Georgetown Law Center. After law school she worked for a law firm in Boston, Massachusetts after which she joined the law department of a fortune 500 computer company where as Assistant General Counsel she held a senior management position. Marietta lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, is a commissioner with the Commission on Common Ownership Communities, Co-chair of the Montgomery County Distressed Communities Task Force, served as president of the condominium association where she lives and continues to serve on that association’s board of directors.

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