Two days, six legislators, and 39 groups or individuals—this describes the annual Legislative Forum in Sheridan, Wyo. The forum is sponsored by the Sheridan County Chamber of Commerce and gives Sheridan businesses, nonprofits, educational institutions, public agencies and individuals an opportunity to meet with their state legislators and discuss important issues.
The December forum took place at Sheridan City Hall, located in downtown Sheridan. Its purpose was to connect legislators with constituents and local stakeholders before the legislative session. Legislators learn about issues or concerns of the community, enabling them to make informed decisions while in Cheyenne. Some stakeholders only provided an update about their work, while others used this opportunity to lobby for or against legislation or request state funding. Each presenter had a 15 or 30 minutes to talk to the legislators and a volunteer kept time for each presentation. The forum started at 9 a.m. and ended around 4:30 p.m. The room set up was similar to a traditional committee room, with the legislators sitting at a dias that is crescent shaped and speakers sitting at a table in front of the dias. An agenda is created for the forum that listed the time of the presentation, the organization presenting , the speaker and the topic. The agenda follows the rule of no surprises, both the legislators and audience knew what to expect. The forum was broadcast live and was recorded to broadcast at a later date. At any given time, there were about 10 to 15 citizens in the audience. During some points of the day, the Sheridan high school civics/government class would circulate through to observe the forum. During the lunch hour, the forum went on the road, visiting the Wyoming Girls School one day and the Sheridan Senior Center the next.
The Sheridan county delegation includes Senators Bruce Burns and John Schiffer and Representatives Rosie Berger, Kathy Coleman, Mike Madden and John Patton. Each legislator brings his or her own perspective and expertise to the forum. In addition, they are assigned to their legislative committees prior to the forum, so they know what topic areas they will be working on during the session. All these factors enable the legislators to ask detailed questions of the presenters or provide insight into how the legislature, as a whole, may view or handle the issue during the upcoming session. For example, Representative Rosie Berger, former chair of the House Appropriation Committee and Speaker Pro Tempore, was able to talk about the funding challenges for community colleges during Sheridan College’s presentation.
A signature design of the forum is that legislators are able to work as a team. Their specific expertise and committee or leadership assignments enables each of them to address certain issues. Senator Bruce Burns, chair of the Senate Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources committee, was able to provide detailed input when the Sheridan Travel & Tourism group or the Wyoming Department of Fish & Game presented. Representative John Patton, a member of the Education committee, asked specific questions when education groups presented. This division of work and the comprehensive expertise of the group allowed the other legislators to listen freely without feeling the pressure to provide their own complete response to the presenter.
Another benefit of the forum was the abundance of open conversation and dialogue among the legislators and presenters. There’s no filter from either party. The legislators were curious and honest in their answers and the presenters had an opportunity to share their successes, and sometimes, frustrations in a respectful way.
During the two-day forum, Senator John Schiffer would often say, “paint me a picture,” seeking to know more . Schiffer and the other legislators were interested in learning and understanding intricate details of an issue. The legislators were also adamant about staying on time. After the first or second presenter, Senator Burns requested that presentations be kept to 10 to 12 minutes, so legislators had time to ask questions during the remaining three to five minutes of the 15 minute time slot. A moderator was present to watch the time of each presentation and played referee between the legislators and presenters when time ran out.
The forum is successful in many ways, especially connecting legislators to stakeholders in a concise format. However, some challenges do exist. While many organizations were able to present information and their viewpoints, only two individuals met with the legislators. Also, the forum took place during the day with no evening hours. This limited the number of participants.
- Work as a team: The key benefit of the Legislative forum is that legislators work as a team. Each one has his or her own expertise and committee assignment in the legislature. If one legislator couldn’t answer a question or provide detailed information, another was surely able to help out.
- Set an agenda… and stick to it: The Legislative Forum works well because an agenda is established ahead of time and the legislators are committed to staying on time and not going off topic.
- Use a partner: The forum is organized every year by the Sheridan County Chamber of Commerce. Using a partner eliminates some of the challenges that exist when planning a large scale event.
- Be genuine and honest: Legislators were engaged and interested in the information provided. They were genuine in their conversations, open about what they knew and didn’t know and gave honest opinions.