Servicey: Keeping Track of Local Politics

Keeping track of national politics is bad enough, but following local politics can be a real pain in the butt, especially if you live somewhere without a good newspaper, where your major sources of news are from outside the area and thus don’t cover local issues very often, if at all. You tend to find out about things second and third hand, often after the fact, and thus you live in a perennial state of shock and surprise; they did what at the City Council meeting? No one spoke up to oppose that ordinance?

Fortunately, there are some things you can do to keep an eye on local politics. Unfortunately, a lot of these things are time consuming, and may not be an option for you all the time. Hence, I highly recommend banding together with other people who also want to track local politics, so you can sort of trade off responsibilities and take turns gathering and distributing information. Find some people you actually trust who will really do the work, by the way!

Many regional governments helpfully put things online for you, usually on a hideous site that is extremely difficult to navigate and randomly has a bunch of broken links. If you’re lucky, the links to the town calendar are not broken. The calendar is your friend. Live it, love it, learn it. You can find out when meetings are scheduled and sometimes, the city even helpfully publishes the agenda online so you can find out which meetings you really shouldn’t miss. If it doesn’t, drop by city hall once a week and pick up the agendas. Seriously. Read them. Remember, you don’t just want city council but the planning commission, board of supervisors, etc etc depending on the structure of your local government.

Ask for any packets associated with the agendas, because those contain things like draft resolutions, reports, and so forth. You are going to need that stuff. For two reasons. The first is that you should read them through to see what is up, so you get a better idea of what is happening in the town around you, and so you know who is really shaping political and social events. The second is that you need to read them so you can decide if you should go to the meeting and speak. Usually there’s a public comment period, you are a member of the public, ergo, you can comment during that period. Alternatively, you could prepare a written response and send it to your city council representative and ask to have it read into the minutes or added to the packet so it will be seen and discussed. You want to read through it so you can actually point to what you are talking about instead of relying on what your hairdresser told you.

By the way, city hall isn’t the only place to check for meetings and events. You should check the county government too, because it may be doing things that could have an impact on you, like approving tax increases and new developments. Again, you can probably find a schedule online, you may be able to find agendas and information packets. If not, you can go to the county seat and ask for them, or you can ask to have copies sent if you can’t make the trip. Read that stuff over, carefully, and be prepared to make comments on it. Again, you can speak at a meeting or mail in written comments. Either way, get on the record. Make sure local politicians know that people in the community are not asleep at the wheel, here.

Another surprisingly fruitful source of information is the legal notices in the paper. By law, if the city wants to put anything up for bid, it has to stick it in there, and that can be a good way to find out about proposed projects and events. You can also pick up other juicy news along the way, like who just got foreclosed on and who is filing a new fictitious business statement to open up yet another tacky t-shirt shop that caters to tourists. While the actual reporting in the paper may be crap, the legal notices have to appear, and they can be very enlightening.

Public information meetings, not necessarily listed on the city hall calendar, can be very interesting as well. Community organizations regularly hold meetings to discuss political topics of interest. They’re often in a location like the library or town hall, so you can check the building schedule to find out who is meeting when. Community organizations looooove interested members of the public and will be delighted to have you. Some of their members are usually insiders in local politics, which means you can get information about stuff that is not yet in general public circulation. You can also have input on these things, as such meetings are often held specifically to allow members of the public to provide suggestions and comments for general civic improvement.

If you’re teaming up with people, feel free to split up beats by area of interest, and have folks report back on what they’re seeing and doing. Take turns going to city council meetings, reading through and summarizing packet materials, etc. If you’re feeling really ambitious, consider starting a local politics website with all this information, since you’re pulling it together anyway. You may find more interested people to join your team, and your presence online can also alert your august civic leaders to the fact that they are being watched.