How to find out what’s on at local government

One consequence of being more active in local government of late has been a waning tolerance for people who refuse to put any work in when it comes to keeping track of what is happening, only to act surprised and outraged about things when they, er, happen. A lot of people accusing local governments of being ‘corrupt’ or ‘not listening to the people’ have put in absolutely no effort at interacting with local government, and these accusations aren’t really fair — it would be like wearing headphones in class every day and then acting shocked and betrayed when test day arrives.

Some of this is outright laziness. Some of it is malice. Some of it is just ignorance. I can’t help you with the first two, but I can help you with the last. If you feel like your local government is moving faster than you can follow, or you keep hearing about things after the fact, or you’re not getting the whole story, there are a lot of resources available to you, and here is how to find them.

The first thing you need to know is that contrary to popular opinion and mythology, local government officials almost always want to communicate with members of the public and provide them with information. This is both because it’s legally mandated in a lot of cases (e.g. permit applications must be publicly posted) and because it’s far more efficient for them to reach people at the start of a long and complicated project than it is to hear people screaming at them at the end. People who approach local government wanting to get actively involved are generally encouraged!

The second thing you need to know is that local government can get very big and quite clunky extremely quickly, for a variety of reasons — many of which are not the fault of your current local government officials. That can make following things seem daunting. You likely have a mayor and city council or board of supervisors, and then you have a planning commission, police/law enforcement committee or commission, public works, parks department, finance and administration committee, and a host of other things. Depending on the size and complexity of your city, there might be 12 city employees, or hundreds. Given that, it can be hard to keep track of everything going on at any given time in every department…but you could.

Be aware that any given agenda item may move around: For example, a proposed ordinance might start out in the finance and administration committee, go to city council/the board of supervisors, go BACK to that committee, come back to the council, go to city staff, etc etc. The earlier in this circuit you act, the better. If you show up at a committee meeting (or write a committee member) when something first hits the agenda, you can play a role from the ground up. If you show up at the very last possible minute, when the proposed ordinance has been written, lawyered, approved, introduced, and is about to be finalized into the city code, you’re going to have a tougher time convincing people to make changes that are important to you. Don’t be that person!

It is worth noting that if you want to not just keep an eye on what’s going on, but play an active role, you also have a number of options. Actually showing up at meetings tends to carry more weight with city officials, for a lot of reasons, some of which are unfair. But you can also call, email, snail mail, or hand-submit comments to the city (usually the city clerk or the head of a committee to ensure it gets included in the agenda packet). Those comments must be discussed and considered when people meet. You can also ask the city clerk about how to get things on the agenda if you would like to see a specific issue addressed.

If you’re an internetty sort of person, tracking local government is often very easy, and you have a couple of routes available to you:

  • Many city agencies and departments maintain mailing lists that publicize upcoming meetings and agendas, permit applications, workshops, and other news of note. If you want to know what is going on at, for example, public works, you can sign up for their distribution list. You may opt to subscribe to a few mailing lists on issues that really matter to you so you can get regular updates.
  • Your city may also maintain a website that lists this information as well, allowing you to check in on pending meetings, hearings, workshops, and special sessions. You can read the agenda beforehand to get a sense of what is going on. You can get this information through mailing lists, or you can opt to keep a loose eye on a department without getting a deluge of mail.
  • Depending on the size and quality of your local newspaper, that can be another source for updates on pending city information. Blogs and city news sites (like SFist) are another really good resource — find one that aligns with your interests and politics, and use it! (Some people, like me, livetweet city meetings, which can be another good source of information.)

If you’re not an internetty sort of person (uh, hi?) or you know someone who doesn’t use the internet, all is not lost. The information available online is also available in hard copy, and the city is required to furnish it to people who ask for it.

  • You can request that hard copies of notices and agendas be mailed to you! You can specify which departments you want to hear from — like maybe city council and the planning commission, if that’s your jam.
  • You can also go to city hall and ask to view this information! They maintain copies of all of this material for your perusal, including archives. City clerks can also help you look things up or get more information on a specific issue of concern.

Protip: Be nice to city employees. Yes, it is their job to provide services, including assistance with this kind of thing. However, they are also human beings, and they appreciate being treated respectfully. If you build an established, friendly relationship, they’re also more likely to spontaneously help you out, ping you about something important you might miss, or go the extra mile to help with research. If you decide to be a jerk, you may find that things are more difficult than they needed to be.

Image: Cardiff Town Hall, Michael Gwyther-Jones, Flickr