Get involved before you complain about local politics

One of my perennial sources of irritation is people who complain about local politics but don’t actually make any moves to get involved. I don’t necessarily prescribe how people get involved in their local political scene, but the decision to refuse to do anything and remain actively disengaged while still complaining makes me want to climb the walls, and I’m not talking about the perennial debate over voting and not voting (though I will, in a bit). It’s my decided opinion that people who want to complain about local politics and be taken seriously must actually engage directly with them to some degree — everyone is of course welcome to express their opinion, but in this case, I do take some opinions more seriously than others.

Local politics can range from internecine small town squabbles to complicated issues spanning multiple districts within a large city, and I get a bit of both, splitting my time between rural Northern California and the Bay Area. I’m also actively involved in both — though fear not, voter fraud concerntrolls, I’m only registered to vote in one. I want to be able to shape the communities around me and I believe that understanding what’s happening is key to working to reform it.

Voting is, of course, an obvious way of playing a role in local politics. By going to the polls, you can directly cast your vote on issues of interest, though we can all acknowledge that some votes matter more than others, that money buys elections, that a single vote is often largely meaningless. We can also acknowledge that some people may make a conscious decision to refrain from voting, which is not the same thing as lazily refusing to vote, but something that actually does require engagement and consideration. Whether it’s a stance you agree with or not, it is a stance. People who don’t vote or can’t explain why they don’t vote are already failing pretty big on the engagement front.

But you can be engaged without voting — as for example when you live in multiple places and don’t want to, you know, break the law. You can start by reading the news and being aware of ongoing issues, and by sending letters to the editor to participate in the community. You can also write officials and government agencies to get your opinions on the record. You can engage in campaigning, phonebanking, and other activities linked to given candidates and causes to get directly involved in local political systems. Your energy and time are often worth more than your vote alone, because you can help educate voters, encourage people to show up at the polls, and push people to get involved in other ways.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret. One of the best ways to get involved in local politics is right there on your city government website or at the town hall office. It’s the listing of upcoming city council, planning commission, utilities board, and other agency meetings. This information must be made public, including the date, time, and location, and with a few exceptions, these meetings must also be open to the public — closed sessions must be clearly marked with an indicator as to why they are closed. (Typically when they involve pending litigation.)

Moreover, city hall staff have to provide you with a copy of the agenda in advance. Reading an agenda, a publicly available document that can provide invaluable information about what is going on in your town, is a great way to get directly involved in what is happening locally. If you can show up to a meeting, you have the opportunity to comment (or submit comments ahead of time) and play an active role in shaping public policy, not just by commenting but by showing that the community does have an interest. If you can’t show up, you can still submit written comments. In these instances, your comments will go into a packet for review.

These actions matter. If you don’t like what’s going on downtown in terms of new construction and road work, start going to planning commission meetings. Read the city plan. You’ll learn about the rationale the city is using to make decisions and if you are opposed to it, you can push back. If you’re not comfortable with proposed ordinances, show up to comment on them, or fight to repeal ordinances that you think are outdated or potentially illegal. If you have complaints about things the city is doing, conduct of city employees, and more, show up and say something about them. 

You don’t necessarily have to be at city hall — I am a huge fan of civil disobedience and believe that protests and marches from climbing a flagpole to remove a Confederate flag to hitting the streets to stop traffic are also valid forms of commentary. They indicate that people are unhappy with something that’s going on, and they are investing energy and putting something on the line to address it. You don’t have to pursue mainstream or traditional modes of involvement for your input to matter and anyone who claims otherwise is full of it. All you have to do, as a member of a community, is try.

Whatever that looks like for you. Maybe you don’t have a lot of energy and you can’t get out and about. That’s fine, but you can still decide on one agenda item a month that you want to comment on, or you can still insist that your personal care assistant help you fill out the ballot for every election. You can ask friends to keep you updated on information that’s important while you’re traveling overseas and are a bit out of touch with the news. You can actively seek out media used by and targeted at communities that aren’t you to learn more about the concerns of different populations where you live.

But the one thing you can’t do is coast along without any engagement and expect people to take you seriously when you whine about local politics.

Image: Town Hall — Superior Arizona, Alan English CPA, Flickr