Lobbyists don't often choose Advisory Neighborhood Commission meetings as forums for mobilizing opposition to pending City Council legislation. But unisex insurance isn't a typical issue.

For starters, most residents don't know what it means.

Two City Council members have introduced bills that would prohibit the use of gender in determining risk and therefore would affect the price paid for all types of insurance coverage. Whether this would raise or lower insurance rates for women depends on whom you believe: the insurance industry or the women's movement.

"With an emotionally charged subject like sex discrimination, it's hard to focus on the economic facts," said Joy Howell, president of the public relations firm of Howell Communications, who has organized a group to fight the legislation. The group is funded largely by insurance companies.

Howell decided to take the insurance companies' case to the District's 37 Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs), community organizations formed to advise the city on pending government actions that would affect the communities.

Howell has attended more than half a dozen ANC meetings and 35 civic group gatherings to present the facts as she sees them.

As executive director of the Women's Insurance Forum, a group of professional insurance women that formed a year ago, Howell said that unisex insurance would increase the cost of insurance for women in the District.

According to her figures, if the legislation is passed, life insurance rates for women residents of the District would rise more than $1 million and automobile insurance would skyrocket -- especially for women under 25. Health insurance preminums would drop somewhat, she explained, but would still rise slightly for a few women.

"She's got her figures from the insurance industry . . . and they're wrong," said Dr. Mary Gray, president of the Women's Equity Action League. Gray, a professor of math and statistics at American University, believes that women would pay less for insurance if gender was not a consideration in setting rates.

Gray said that women often pay much higher premiums than men carrying identical or better coverage. Some insurance companies offer cheaper life insurance to women while claiming that women as a group live longer than men, according to a League fact sheet. But "few women benefit from this minor advantage because they pay a surcharge for smaller amounts of coverage," the fact sheet said.

Howell called her strategy of taking the unisex insurance issue to neighborhood groups instead of directly to City Council members "a pilot project."

A former manager of city council campaigns in Austin, Tex., Howell said she understands politics at the grass-roots level. She compared District residents with those of Austin,saying both are "politically fascinated and alert."

"If something is going to have an economic impact on them, they want to know about it," she said.

Donald Dinan, chairman of a Capitol Hill ANC, said Howell's eight-minute presentation during a May meeting drew a "lively discussion" from the 50 people who attended.

"Whether she convinced people or not, I don't know," he said. "She didn't hurt her position. And it might have helped."

Dinan referred to Howell's lobbying method as a "newly developing phenomenon." He said more and more people are trying to get the ANC to take a position on current issues, such as C&P Telephone Co.'s rate increase request.

Andrea Masciana, chairman of Brightwood-Manor Park ANC in Northwest, sent a letter to Mayor Marion Barry in April explaining that the commissioners voted unanimously to oppose the insurance law because it would "raise life insurance and auto insurance rates for women, while raising only the health [insurance] rates for men."

Gray has not taken her support for the legislation to the ANCs. Gray said Howell's group is funded by the insurance industry. "We're not. We don't have the resources" to go to the community, Gray said.

Howell said that several insurance companies, including Nationwide and Aetna, gave money to the Women's Insurance Forum so it could start its challenge to the unisex legislation.

"But it was our idea to form this group, not the insurance companies'," she said.

The two bills were introduced by council member Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8) and cosponsored by council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large). Both bills have been referred to the council's Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which is chaired by Councilman John Ray (D-At large). No public hearings have been scheduled.

Rolark and Ray said they had not been contacted by the Women's Insurance Forum nor by any neighborhood group taking a position on unisex insurance. Kane said she has met with Howell.

Howell is concerned that the bills will move quickly. "The council tends to move rapidly on emotional bills," she said. "We just want to talk to people in a calm manner."