Early last year, my associate, Donald Ross, a young lawyer with a Peace Corps background, spent several weeks in Connecticut with students and community residents to urge the creation of a statewide citizens’ action organization. In a society composed of large corporate and governmental institutions, such citizenship would have to be composed of full-time, skilled practitioners of that neglected obligation backed by larger numbers of part-time citizen advocates .
Throughout the spring of 1971, volunteers, particularly high school students, collected a total of $52,000 (the average contribution was 72¢) which made possible the first statewide citizen-supported public interest group to deal with consumer, environmental, human rights and governmental performance issues. By September, the Connecticut Citizen Action Group (CCAG) was underway with a youthful staff of lawyers, scientists and organizers whose average salary was $4,000 per year.
Now, 15 months later, CCAG is on its way to becoming a household word in Connecticut. It has completed a monumental study of Connecticut state legislators — the first of its kind in the country — with profiles on each of the lawmakers, their votes, attendance, bills, comments on the bills, their interest groups, responsiveness to constituents, opinions on reform, campaign financing and other details of importance to voters in evaluating their legislators. Requests for information by citizen groups around the country who want to start a similar study on their state legislators are coming into CCAG’s jammed offices at 57 Farmington Avenue in downtown Hartford.
Led by its Director, Toby Moffett, CCAG is preparing a book on how to study your state legislature. Already the Virginia Citizens Consumers Council has announced it will launch a similar study of Virginia state legislators.
CCAG has organized a citizens lobby numbering about 3,000 people throughout the state. They mobilize around such issues as power plant siting, mass transit, air pollution, proposed telephone rate increases and other important matters that have had little or no citizen participation whether at legislative hearings, agency proceedings or in the courts. Moffett and his fellows have worked with unemployed engineers and scientists, retired people, high school students on a variety of the state’s problems. CCAG has caught the Navy negligently spilling radioactive wastewater into the mouth of the Thames River near New London. These young citizens have created a new confidence among many Connecticut residents that problems and abuses can be disclosed, studied and diminished if enough people are willing to engage in citizen efforts and learn the skills necessary to be ever more effective.
In Ohio, the Ohio Public Interest Action Group helped to toughen the strip mine law which passed the state legislature, established an auto complaint center in Columbus and uncovered widespread violations of the truth in lending law by Cleveland banks. For three years, the National Consumers Union, operating near Chicago out of Prospect Heights, Illinois, has brought together dedicated women who want to do something about deceptive, non-nutritious, spoiled or unsanitary food sold in supermarkets. NCU has produced a codebook which deciphers for the consumer the processors’ codes that tell the retailer when perishable goods should be taken off the shelves. Too often these goods stay on the shelf. The consumers group has also organized price monitoring programs and price comparisons of identical products between different supermarkets in an area.
All over the country, to the discomfort of many politicians and corporations, citizen action is spreading and becoming more effective. The Environmental Protection Agency in Washington has compiled, in a free brochure, short descriptions of citizen initiatives which have successfully taken on business and government in the pollution field. Some of these efforts were fairly extensive, such as the “Breathers’ Lobby” in Pittsburgh known as GASP and the Businessmen for the Public Interest in Chicago with its lawsuits fighting polluters. Others were efforts by one or two people who spoke out and acted to reduce, stop or prevent environmental contamination.
The need for full-time citizen groups to contend with these and other injustices, such as those affecting workers, the poor, the infirm and the elderly, is becoming evident to more people. A complex society requires this new profession of full-time public citizens.
There is little doubt, what with broad failures by private and public bureaucracies to anticipate or diminish so many major problems that the promise of the country more than ever will rest on the shoulders of a citizen resurgence — one that claims greater amounts of peoples’ energy and time in community betterment and avoids the delegation or abdication of responsibility to entrenched centers of power.