In an age where political rants flood social media feeds, Williamson, Inc. welcomed three public officials to its First Friday event at E|Spaces in Cool Springs to discuss ways citizens can truly make their voices heard in their local government.
Williamson, Inc. Director of Government Affairs Kel McDowell moderated a conversation on Friday with county commissioners Gregg Lawrence (District 4) and Beth Lothers (District 5), as well as Amanda Conway, legislative assistant to State Rep. Sam Whitson (R-Franklin), about the best way for their constituents to reach out and the importance of staying informed.
Lawrence began by stressing the importance of citizens providing information about where they’re from and what they do when they send emails and letters to their elected officials. He said this information allows him to understand whether or not writers are his constituents and gives a bit of context.
It’s also important to take the time to craft a personalized email, Lawrence said, not copying and pasting text and sending it off in a mass email. He said a thoughtful, personal email will more likely earn a response from an elected official.
Conway seconded Lawrence’s remarks, saying she often receives mass emails from areas outside Whitson’s constituency. She stressed the importance of making sure citizens contact the right person.
“We’ll get a lot of emails out of Nashville, or Knoxville, or Memphis,” Conway said. “While we want to hear people’s opinions, it matters more if they’re coming from our district.”
Conway added that public officials really do value input from their communities, saying she has stepped into Whitson’s office numerous times to find him reading through emails and handouts from his constituents.
McDowell expressed relationships with one’s commissioners and public officials are invaluable to those with special expertise that may help their government find solutions to issues at hand.
“They say all politics (are) local,” he said. “Well, it all starts with that local governance, and it really, really funnels up to the top.
“There’s such power in getting to know your elected officials at every level.”
Lawrence confirmed this, saying he receives helpful emails from a former city planner containing articles on transportation and information on planning for growth, some of which have even changed his position on certain issues.
However, Lawrence and Lothers both emphasized one point: facts often speak louder than emotions.
“All of you have passions about some things, and you want to express that emotion, and that’s great,” Lawrence said. “But, to really separate yourself from the pack, I would say you can show your emotion but also present the facts and information.
“Come to us with some ideas that are helpful instead of just sounding off and telling us why you don’t like something.”
Lothers explained emotions can sometimes make it difficult to get at the heart of an issue.
She shared a story about a man who was angry with her when she was the mayor of Nolensville because some drivers in the town had been ignoring a stop sign. She said, because there was not a whole lot she could do about the issue, she asked him about his life, and found out he was a new grandfather. She realized his anger was driven by fear for his grandchild’s safety.
Once Lothers understood where he was coming from, the two were able to talk about steps towards a solution.
“I would rather hear what’s behind someone’s passion and have understanding (about) what’s behind it,” she said. “Once they feel acknowledged in what’s behind it, then we can actually have the pragmatic conversation of, well, what can we do?”
Lothers also said it can be difficult to respond to people when they present misinformation, explaining that getting proper facts from credible sources is necessary before good conversations can happen.
“I believe the people make the right decisions if they have all the facts and information. We have a very smart electorate,” she said. “But with social media, … now we’ve got a click of a button, and we have more information, but we don’t always have accurate information.”
One way citizens can stay informed on hyperlocal issues is by getting plugged in with their public officials in their preferred channels. Conway said Rep. Whitson is very active on Facebook, while Lothers said she plans to launch a personal website with information about local issues. Additionally, Lawrence said he sends out emails updating his constituents on the matters being addressed in his district.
Williamson, Inc. also has resources on their site about Williamson County government, including an interactive Google map that allows users to find officials representing their districts. Visit their site at williamsonchamber.com/government.