What you need to know about engaging with local politics

Members of the Philadelphia City Council speaking to the public.

Last November, I issued a standing challenge to followers and friends: Get involved with local politics. Pick a given political body and make it yours. Maybe that’s city council, parks and recreation, water district, whatever. Go to those meetings. Comment. Engage. Run for office, if you feel like it! I also published a guide for people who weren’t sure about how to find out what is happening locally, when, and where. I was excited to see some people taking up the cause, but others seemed hesitant, unsure about what exactly to do and how all of this worked. So this is my followup, and I’ll include an offer with it: If you are interested in getting involved with local politics but you feel intimidated, you can email me. I would be delighted to mentor you. This post is based entirely on actual questions that people have asked and there is no such thing as an obvious question. Perhaps your questions will lead to a followup!

What’s a city council/committee/commission meeting like?

It depends on the agency and where you are, but generally, it will last between one and four hours, depending on the agenda. Many open with the pledge of allegiance. Typically the members of the government body will issue proclamations, followed by comments from them, and then from staff. Next, they’ll move on to the meat of the meeting, which typically starts with an open comment period and then includes three different components, which may be presented in any order, determined by the body involved.

  1. The consent calendar. This consists of a set of brief, uncontroversial items — for example, maybe an ordinance has been read, but still needs to be adopted. The chair will read down the list of items on the consent calendar, someone will make a motion to adopt, and another will second. The items aren’t discussed — but during the open comment period, you may comment on them. A member of the body may opt to ‘pull’ an item for discussion if warranted.
  2. Conduct of business. This includes any agendised items, which can include taking reports, discussions about proposed ordinances, and any number of other things. Members of the public may comment on these items. The body may make a motion, or provide direction to staff, depending on the item.
  3. Public hearings. Depending on the body, certain items require a public hearing, in which information is presented, the public is invited to respond, the matter is deliberated, and the body takes action.

This order may vary! The printed agenda will clearly outline what happens when and some bodies do things in ways that are, uh, creative.

Adjourned! Unless there’s a closed session, in which case you are going to get booted while they discuss confidential information. (Usually pending litigation or employee reviews. If closed sessions are common, you might want to look into why and demand more transparency.)

Who will be there?

Presumably the members of the given body that’s meeting — we’ll say the city council. Then, supporting staff. At a minimum, a clerk is present, and the city manager or the head of the relevant office will also be there to present and contextualise information. For example, the head of Community Development may be present at a planning commission meeting. Typically, staffers who are working on agenda items also show up. That might include the heads of various city departments, the city attorney, finance and administration staff. The chief of police may also be present. Any member of the public is allowed to attend, and typically people with an interest in given agenda items are there along with those who keep a general eye on things (like journalists).

What is the dress code/how should I dress?

This depends on where you are, but generally for members of the audience it is very casual. I have showed up to city council in jeans and a t-shirt. If I plan to make comments, I usually dress a little more nicely. (So, jeans and a sweater.) Some people wear suits. If you have been invited to make a presentation, it’s common to wear business-appropriate wear. (e.g. if I was talking to city council about the sex store I wanted to start, I would likely wear a suit.) Hats should be removed in chambers. Generally speaking, really ratty/gross clothes are a bad call, but they’re not going to get you thrown out in most cases.

How do I make comments?

The clerk should have a stack of speaker cards (they may be called something else), allowing you to put down your name to indicate that you wish to speak. You should write the relevant agenda item (6B, say), or indicate that you wish to speak during the open comment period. Sometimes, depending on formality, the chair will ask if anyone who did not submit a card wished to speak before closing the comment period.

You will need to approach the podium to speak. Make sure to speak clearly into the microphone (or have your interpreter do so) both so that it can be properly recorded, and so everyone can hear. State your name — if you like, you can also say where you live. (‘Marina Alvarez, fourth district’ is fine, you don’t need to give your street address.) The length of time allotted for speaking varies, but plan for around three minutes. Typically a little buzzer will go off to warn you when you only have 30 seconds left. Be clear and concise. You can address the chair or members of the body directly if you like, or be more broad (‘Madam Mayor, members of the city council…’).

A note on the open comment period: Depending on where you are and the policies of the body that is meeting, it may not be possible for them to react or take action on the basis of things said during the public comment. (The Brown Act in California prohibits it, for example.) That means that if you request an action…they may not be able to take it. Printed agendas usually explain what can and cannot be done during the open comment period. However, if someone says something that is demonstrably and significantly untrue, the body or a staffer may issue a correction.

I just started going to meetings, are people going to judge me/treat me like an outsider?

That depends on the context, but probably yes. However, that tends to change quickly. Civic meetings are often very poorly attended and someone who consistently attends, comments, and engages for a few months generally gets respect quickly. It’s not fair that people tend to get the cold shoulder/dilettante treatment the first few times out, but that’s the way it is.

Do I have to go to meetings?

Technically, no. You can read agendas online or at city hall and submit comments for consideration. You can contact local officials directly. You can often watch meetings online or via local access television, and read minutes as well. However, people who show up tend to be weighted more heavily. Again, this isn’t fair, but this is how it works. If people get used to seeing your face in chambers, they take you more seriously.

Do I have to stay for the whole meeting?

No! Some people show up for their agenda item and then leave. It’s hard to predict when exactly an item will be considered, so that may require showing up at or near the start, but you don’t need to sit through all the way to the gavel falling at the end of the night. However, showing up for the whole meeting can give you a better sense of how things work, and offer chances to comment on things and learn about things you wouldn’t have known about.

How do I get an item on the agenda?

That depends on where you are and the agenda in question. In general, the agenda reflects a mix of items added by members of the body (like a city council member) and staff (like the city manager). If there’s an issue you would like to discuss, you can ask someone on the body to add it to the agenda. If they don’t, you can take advantage of the public comment period to bring it up and request that it be brought up for consideration at a future meeting.

What happens if someone is disruptive?

Different bodies run their meetings differently. The chair may ask for people to settle down and give them a few chances to stop being twerps. If someone is so disruptive that the meeting can’t continue, or members of the public feel intimidated, they may be asked to leave. It is worth noting that people generally ask that members of the audience not react (including with applause) while members of the body are talking, or during the public comment.

Partly, this is to prevent intimidation. If you’re commenting on an agenda item and the three people who went before you said really bigoted things to the sound of wild applause, you may feel uncomfortable getting up and speaking your mind. By asking that applause and commentary be held, the body tries to ensure that everyone has a fair chance to speak. It’s also super rude to talk over commenters or members of the council, and that includes scoffing and making snarky outbursts. (Be like me and use Twitter for your in-meeting snark.)

If you’re having a problem with someone in the audience and the chair doesn’t see it or isn’t responding, you can approach during the break or at the end of the meeting to ask them to be more conscientious during the next meeting. If it’s REALLY a problem, sneak a note up to the clerk and ask for it to be passed along to the chair as a procedural matter.

How do I organise people around an agenda item that’s important to me? 

Get to know your neighbours! I hate Facebook, but lots of people and groups organise via Facebook. You can also email people, or just talk to them — if you’re taking out the trash and you see your neighbour, mention what’s on the agenda and when. Community groups organising around an issue will likely already know it’s on the agenda, but you can ask them if they need help rounding people up to speak during public comments. You can also text people from the meeting when the agenda item is coming up to prod them into coming.

Is it possible to change meeting times/locations/structures?

Yes! It helps if you’ve been to a few meetings so people can get to know you, but depending on the municipal code and the bylaws of the specific body, you may be able to push for a change of time. (Sometimes the code says that said body will meet on the second and fourth Wednesdays at six pm and you’re kind of stuck, unless you can push for a new ordinance.) You can also request a change of locale — last year, for example, the city moved all committee meetings to Town Hall to make it easier to record proceedings for the purpose of transparency. In terms of meeting structure, the order of the agenda is determined by the body itself, and you can request that they consider moving things around. For example, maybe you think staff comments should be at the end, or public hearings should be held first thing. It helps to present a clear, thoughtful case.

Good luck getting them to take out the pledge of allegiance, though.

Image: Philadelphia City Council, Flickr