Mass State Senate Citizens Legislative Seminar

This week good friend Paul Sweeney attended the Massachusetts State Senate’s Citizens Legislative Seminar. He reports that it was a great experience and was kind enough to compose a report about it which he shares with us here:

I recently attended the 75th class of the Citizens Legislative Seminar. You ask… what the heck is CLS? Until I saw a Facebook post by our state senator, Eileen Donoghue, I had no idea that something like this existed never mind what it was!

I contacted Senator Donoghue’s office and was nominated by her to attend the two day event. We met at the State House in Boston. Day one consisted of a history of the legislature dating back to the Pilgrims in 1620. Michael Comeau, Executive Director of the State Archives, was the presenter. The Clerk of the Senate, Bill Welch, detailed the legislative process and the rules of the Senate. Senator Karen Spilka, Chair of the Senate Ways ands Means Committee explained the process of formulating a budget every year. Senators Harriet Chandler and Michael Rush explained the legislative process and how to be heard by your legislators, including best ways to lobby and testify at public hearings. More on that below.

The day ended with a simulated Joint Legislative Committee Hearing on Senate Bill S1257: “An Act promoting use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement“. Several classmates became “Senators” and “Representatives” while other classmates did the testifying both pro and con. After each speaker Senator Ken Donnelly, Senate Majority Leader and the “Chairman” of our mock committee, critiqued the speakers and explained what they did well and what not so well. He gave examples of behavior that enhance one’s testimony such as not reading from prepared documents but speaking “off-the-cuff” which impresses the committee members with your knowledge and enhances your reputation as a true expert in the subject matter. He also critiqued the “Senators” and “Representatives” questions and comments and related them to what actually happens during a hearing.

Day Two started with a special “Coffee-and” reception in the Senate Reading Room (the original Senate Chamber when the State House was originally opened in 1795) to celebrate that we were the 75th class since the seminar began. This was followed by Attorney Jennifer Miller, the Senate Counsel. She and her staff make sure that all the bills passed by the Senate meet state laws and that the language of the bill will stand up in court and will defend in court any challenges to those bills. She has extensive experience as a public counsel including arguing Massachusetts’ defense of the 30-foot “exclusion zone” around abortion clinics at the US Supreme Court (which she lost (9-0) but in reality “won” because the Chief Justice in his opinion detailed the changes that would have to be made to the current law to pass constitutional muster). These laws were rapidly passed to continue the protection that the exclusion zone law was intended to provide.

Next, the Clerk of the Senate, and 4 Senate staff members went over protocol and procedures for a full Senate debate on a bill. We then were assigned seats in the Senate chamber. I was assigned Seat 40 just to the right of the podium. An interesting trivia fact is that each Senator’s seat height is adjusted so that all Senators are at “eye level” with each other so no one is perceived as “better” than another. Clerk Welch entered the Chamber and called for amendments to S1257; there were 7 offered. Then President Rosenberg entered the Chamber and called the session to order. He began with Amendment #1, calling on the amendment’s sponsor to explain his/her amendment followed by debate and a vote to accept or reject. After all 7 had been voted on (5 passed and 2 were rejected by our body) President Rosenberg called for debate on the entire bill as amended. There was actually a spirited but civil argument (not as has recently been seen in our nation’s Capital). Opposing arguments were generally from “Senators” from smaller communities who were worried about equipment, training and administrative costs of the bill. Arguments in favor were generally focused on protecting civil rights of citizens who came in contact with police wearing body cams. One “Senator” in favor, Bil [sic] Lewis of Cambridge gave a very comprehensive defense of the bill but it wasn’t until after the session was adjourned that we found out that even though S1257 was chosen at random, coincidently it was actually largely drafted by Bil in conjunction with Senator Jamie Eldridge and his staff! No wonder he was so vehement and knowledgeable in his comments throughout the seminar. He also testified before the committee during our mock public hearing. S1257 was passed by our body on a roll call vote of 31-9.

The rest of the day was spent on a tour of the State House and an explanation of how to best use the General Court’s web page to track legislation. The *real* S1257 is currently in the Joint Public Safety Committee awaiting the scheduling of a public hearing.

So what did I learn from all this? Because I so-closely read this bill and listened to the arguments as they were presented I learned a great deal about body cam legislation and how this bill would and would not accomplish what I personally desire. I also realized there were some glaring omissions from the bill: technical specifications for the cameras were vague, storage and backup of the images collected was almost non-existent and protection of the civil rights of mentally ill persons and juveniles who will almost certainly be recorded if this bill passes were weak. But I didn’t just stop by lamenting the fact that the bill was defective. I detailed the changes I think are necessary to address the omissions in the manner that we learned during the seminar and emailed them to Senator Donoghue for her consideration. Obviously other bills that I am passionate about in the future will likely get similar treatment. Senator Donoghue?–you created a MONSTER! Run for your life (or *preferably* for another term)!

For anyone reading this who would like to attend a future seminar, please contact Senator Donoghue’s office (or your local state senator if you live outside First Middlesex your local senator). Be aware that each session is limited to 40 attendees since that is the size of the Senate.

Obviously my great thanks go out to Senator Donoghue and to the coordinator of the seminar, Anne Zaija, Executive Director, Senate Office of Education and Civic Engagement, and to the presenters–Senators, their staff members and the other employees of the Senate and the Commonwealth for devoting their time and energy to my (and my classmates) great benefit.

Thanks again to Paul Sweeney for this excellent report.