How To Help Change Your Community Through Local Government
Updated: Jan 6
Although the President and Congress get most of the attention in politics, many issues that affect people's day-to-day lives happen at the local level. For example, I was a member of a community group that joined a coalition that convinced our City Council to pass a tenant bill of rights addressing specific problems in our community. You can't have affordable housing, or a new chemical plant, without the project being approved by the city. There's usually community meetings to share information and get feedback... but ultimately the Council will vote on whether to grant or deny the permit. So you can help support an affordable housing project or protect your community from a manufacturing plant built too close to homes or schools by participating in the process.
This is a great interview (transcript link at end) with the retiring Oakland City Clerk talking about her career and how important it is to participate at the local level.
So if you want to be "in the room where it happens" in local government, City Council (or County Board of Supervisors) is the place to be. It's easier nowadays than ever, as long as you have a good internet connection, because the pandemic has pushed Council meetings onto Zoom and you don't have to go downtown and sit in an auditorium all day. To find out how to join the meeting, just search for "[YourCity] council meeting agenda" and instructions are usually in the agenda, with a Zoom link. The agenda will also list all the business to be discussed and may even specify that a particular issue won't be discussed before a "time certain" so that members of the public won't miss it if they can't tune in before that time.
Although I'm focusing on City Council for brevity, the same principles apply to County Board of Supervisors and various public committees, utility/transit boards, etc. Some topics may be relevant to a wide range of these entities; for example, if you're a climate change activist, that touches a lot of different topics. "All-electric construction" is related to the building codes, going car-free would also relate to building codes (reduced parking, transit incentives) as well as your public transit board and bike lanes that are in a transportation committee.
The agenda usually lists the guidelines for public comment, such as how long you have to speak--usually 2 minutes, sometimes 3 minutes. But this may be cut to 1 minute (or even 30 seconds) on especially popular issues where dozens (or hundreds) of people want to speak. Here are a few things I've learned as a community volunteer making public comment:
If there is an issue you're concerned about, whether it's a big issue like affordable housing or a smaller issue such as cars not being ticketed for parking in bike lanes, look for groups who are already working on this issue. A coordinated campaign is much more effective and they will be planning for when related items are on the agenda. They may even coordinate with other groups with related goals, which is the most effective strategy. A group can even meet with City officials to get items onto the agenda, though the process can take years. They will meet with Council members or their staff to persuade or at least try to figure out who supports and opposes them. But on the day of the Council meeting, they will need members to make public comment and may have talking points they need to cover.
If you can't find a group that already works on your issue, either work with a group close to that issue to see if they are interested in broadening their scope, or form a group. I don't think I've ever seen anything happen that was a one-person crusade unless they recruited public support. If you have a hyperlocal goal, such as getting a stoplight at the intersection where drivers keep hitting people, work with your neighborhood groups or even the local church. If they can't take on the cause, they may at least be open to letting you present to recruit supporters. (If this is daunting, which it would be for me, I recommend working on other people's causes until you have experience and/or allies.)
Public comments won't be taken into consideration unless they're about a specific agenda item and given during the comment period for the item. If you want to comment but absolutely can't wait, there's usually a way to email the Council (or the City Clerk) during the meeting and you can always email them ahead of time. Emails received before a cutoff time become part of the public record--the details should be on the agenda or calendar page. If something is on the agenda, then the public needs to comment on it during the comments for that item and not other times during the meeting. If they're discussing renewal of the Airport's contract for luggage cart service, this is not the time to complain about slumlords ignoring Code Enforcement citations. It's really annoying when people don't follow that rule and could be counterproductive if you get a reputation for being That Guy.
Commenting during Open Forum is not particularly helpful. The Council is not even allowed to act on items that have not been announced on the agenda, and the process for "agendizing" items isn't based on comments from Open Forum (unless you're in a really small town). Big items are voted on during a "priority setting" process because City staff need to research and report on the problem and potential solutions. Items that arise during the year go through a different process. However, if you can coordinate a lot of people to comment on the topic, it can be useful for raising its profile.
There are many different approaches to preparing to speak. Some people write and practice speeches to make sure they can sound professional and finish by the time limit, without wasting time. Others just use a script written by their group. Some people prefer to respond to points other speakers bring up, or they want to bring up points that aren't being talked about. And if someone's comments really resonate with you, it's perfectly OK to just say you agree with that speaker (or group, or other way to identify them if you didn't get their name).
Don't worry that you won't sound like a polished public speaker. Most of the time, what matters most is just the tally of how many people comment on what side of an issue or what points are brought up most often. I think there's even significant emotional weight of someone caring enough about an issue that they've left their comfort zone to speak on it. That's particularly true if you are testifying to how this affected you personally, whether it's about having a bike accident avoiding an illegally parked car or being evicted while sick with COVID-19.
If you are in a group or coalition that covers multiple issues, try to turn out to support the other issues even if they're not as important to you. For example, if your Metro Area Bike Coalition turns out for "Enforce parking in MyCity bike lanes", at least send an email supporting "Bike lane plan in Other City" even if you never bike over there. If the Labor Council supported tenant rights, show up for wage theft or prevailing wage ordinances. If you're in a meeting and happen to hear your allies speaking, raise your hand and say you agree with them. (My experience, even in a very large city, is the same representatives of the same groups show up a lot and you will recognize them pretty soon.)
What other suggestions do you have? Questions?