The dark side of local government (not really)

If you’re expecting fireworks and heated debate in the chambers of local government, you’ll often be disappointed. But if you want up-close access to policymakers who, increasingly in this age of devolution, have influence over many areas of social policy (think zoning requirements about where a homeless shelter can be located, or mill levys to support mental health programs, or theft-of-wage ordinances to address labor exploitation), then local government is an arena you (and your clients) can’t afford to overlook.

To prepare some insights on how social work policy advocates can have an impact on local government policy, I have attended several city council meetings over the past few months (and, in one case, a unified county/city government structure). Many of the meetings were quite perfunctory, but I want to share some insights and invite your thoughts on the overlap between your policy advocacy and opportunities within local government.

  • Check the agenda ahead of time
    In almost all cases, the agendas are made available online in advance of the meeting. While there’s something to be said for sending a nonverbal message to councilpeople that you’ll be there, watching them, every time (and kudos to the neighborhood watch folks in one city who I saw, often, doing just that!), most of us need to be strategic about our use of time, and you can figure out whether anything of interest to your organization will be discussed that day.

  • View it as a lobbying opportunity
    I was impressed on two occasions, in particular, by the lobbying that I saw going on after the regular meeting. Local advocates took advantage of their councilperson’s captive audience and pressed their case immediately before or after the meeting, outside of the regular agenda.

  • Organize the audience!
    Another strategy that seemed to pay off for one organization was to share information about their issue with those assembled to observe the meeting; it makes a lot of sense, really–these are often the kind of hard-core civic activist types who are great potential foot soldiers in your campaigns, and they’re sitting there waiting for the meeting to start just like you are. Bring materials, invite them to events, and connect them to your work, beyond this meeting.

  • Know the process
    While this is admittedly important in any advocacy context, and while each local unit of government will have its own rules and procedures, local policymaking is so intimate in scale that it’s particularly crucial that you know how to navigate it. Some examples: many commissions/councils have a consent agenda, where items will be voted on in a group (theoretically because they are non-controversial), but a member can have something pulled out and considered separately by request. If there’s something that you want to push through with little debate, then, you might try the consent agenda; by contrast, if you want something highlighted, get a member to make that request for you. Many of the bodies also went into executive sessions to consider certain personnel or privileged matters; understanding when and how this is used will prevent a lot of confusion.

  • Context is key
    There’s a lot unspoken in city council meetings, at least from these observations of mine. Without some background, advocates and casual observers alike could miss some important pieces. For example, one commissioner made a reference to the ‘waiting game’ regarding the budget; this particular locality had a sales tax increase pending before an upcoming public vote. In another example, a seemingly obscure debate about the use of fixed percentages of greenfield vs. redevelopment spending in a community talked around the core issues of sprawl, commitment to central cities, and the associated environmental and class divides.

  • A lot of the work happens outside of these public meetings
    Perhaps obviously, I think it’s very important for social justice advocates to be present in these public meetings. And they seem to think so, too; even in the cities where I don’t personally know any of the councilpeople, someone always approached me to ask who I was and what brought me there–there just aren’t that many participants in the process, quite honestly, and so your presence counts, a lot.

    But, given the condensed agendas of the meetings (high on formality, rather low on authentic deliberation) and the seeming inertia of a lot of the committees (it is pretty astounding, in the face of the social problems we confront, to hear the community development, public safety, and public works committees, for example, all offer “no report, Mr. Chairman,” in a row), it seems obvious that it takes considerable public pressure to move a particular concern. Like advocacy everywhere, it requires the development of deep relationships; these are perhaps even more critical here, where everyone seems to know everyone else. It takes counting votes in advance, because it’s obvious that these chairs don’t like surprises. And it demands that we scan the landscape to see what can possibly be addressed by our local governments, so that we’re not just playing defense but really examining the potential tools we can use to lever social change in the lives of those we serve.

    And, yes, sometimes it means that we have to sit through 25 minutes of retirement speeches for long-time employees, or dozens of acknowledgements for Boy Scout troops in the audience…but such is the price of justice.

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  • 16 responses to “The dark side of local government (not really)

    1. Last night, I was watching a counsel meeting on channel two, and let me just say, it was not exhilirating. It seemed that streets and construction were the only things important here, could that be because there are dollar signs attached to those topics? I was quite shocked at how long a discussion could go on about roads and intersections. I felt like this would be a great opportunity for me to start introducing human trafficking to the Kansas City Community. Hopefully, they will be completely shocked about the statistics. I will use the in formation in your blog to guide my actions.

      • It’s interesting, Carrie–I think that discussions about public works improvements can be incredibly important, from a civic perspective, because they are tangible things that citizens can see as reflections of democracy’s responsiveness, even though they may seem mundane (does that make any sense?). That’s one of the reasons that community organizing campaigns often start with those kinds of local improvement projects as targets. But I agree that you could use local government as a venue for your work on trafficking–maybe some kind of an informational hearing, and some discussions about any collaboration with law enforcement, or any coding changes, that might be helpful in your work?

    2. Yes, all of that would be important. I agree that city works items are important and tangible, but with all of the social ills that our community faces… I feel like some time could be used to address these matters. And if there are clear, measurable objectives to addressing these matters, then we would be able to show, hopefully, some type of improvement. Right now, I am working on a subcommittee that is working to revamp the laws on human trafficking in Missouri. It is my hope that this will raise discussion on the local levels and promogulate these changes so that prosecutors and social service agencies are able to use them in their work.

      • It’s a good point, Carrie, and a big part of the reason that I’ve never wanted to run for city council! I find, though, that as my kids and I become more attached to our local community, we’re getting involved on some local issues, and it is a good venue in which to learn some of these advocacy skills.

    3. Carrie,
      If you decide to bring up human trafficking I will be there to support you. I fully agree with you about bringing up important social issues that affect our community. I feel that a lot of times people lack that pride and connection to their community. I feel that another important discussion would be on getting community involvement and bringing it together. One of my favorite author, Malcolm Gladwell, wrote a book called, Outliers. The book had a story about how members of this community were living long after the average lifespan. It was not due to diet or exercise, but the safe, family feel that their community provided.

    4. It has been years since I attended a city council meeting, however a particular set of board meetings come to mind–the school closure and consolidation meetings in Lawrence, KS years ago. It was proposed that four schools be closed. I used food program data to speak to the board about their targeting of the city’s poorest schools for closure, the fact that many of these families had no vehicles to drive their small children to a new school and about the emotional impact this was having on school staff, students, and parents. There were meetings to work on the “movement” area attorneys, parents, teachers, and much division within the schools and emotions were high. We were on the edges of our seats as the debates ran on. Unfortunately, the schools closed and merged and a new school was built–Langston Hughes–at a time when “times were tight” on the wealthier, newer West side of Lawrence. We didn’t go down without a fight : ) Your comment about things going on outside of meetings–we called out school board members for improper use of closed door meetings and elected new school board members–it was a great civic lesson.

      • Great story, Gayle. Even though you didn’t get what you wanted, what emerged, in terms of stronger relationships, that you can claim as “victories” from that struggle? Why do you think you weren’t successful–what values and forces were arrayed against you?

    5. I have had some experience with local government. There are two things that come to mind… the first being a petition I organized in our neighborhood to stop a developer from building duplexes. It was a successful campaign (so to speak), the petition signers came to the meeting and we presented the petition and all spoke against the developer. We were successful in stopping that developer and the mayor told the developer if he wanted to build he should talk to the people in the neighborhood about what they want built in the neighborhood. The developer has since sold the property to someone else and the property sits idle, well kept, but idle. The developer was pretty angry with our neighborhood. The second piece that came to mind is that I know my district state representative. It is a precarious position. I do not follow his ideals and I think he was voted into this position on precarious terms. I have tried to present a point with him once and felt unheard. I have had social occasions involving his wife. It is a difficult position to be in when one strongly disagrees with the political views of a social friend. Living in a Republican state and district while being democrat/liberal is difficult. Here I have almost total access to a republican in leadership of MY community to discuss my views, however, I do not feel comfortable because I have so many social attachments to that relationship that can/will be compromised. I continue to struggle with my position and hope to one day overcome the idle fear of confronting and risking my social position to work towards a better world.

      • Why didn’t people want the duplexes? What was the impetus for individual participation in that campaign? How do you see that activism transferring to other venues–for you and for your neighbors?

        The issue you raise about your state representative is an important one. I, too, have sometimes felt that becoming “too close” to people in positions of power has compromised my advocacy, because that relationship can become important in itself, not just as a conduit to transformative policy. What kinds of advocacy strategies could still preserve your relationship–what about using what you know about his values and priorities to inform others’ advocacy? Or approaching him privately, to try to find some common ground? Or inviting him to come to see some of the work you care about?

        What would be the worst thing that could happen if you speak up and he reacts strongly? What would be the worst thing that could happen if you remain silent? I sometimes use those “worst-case scenarios” to guide my action, or lack thereof.

    6. People did not want the duplexes because of a few reasons. The lot that the duplexes were to be put on are on a busy street corner. We have a lot of high school students who access (walk and drive) the corner -which creates higher safety risks to all involved. The amount of duplexes the developer wanted to place on the lot was more than the lot could hold (in our estimation). Additionally, the driveways would let out on an already busy street. This last point was important, not just because the street is busy and adding 4 driveways onto a 2 lot property was excessive, but, for some reason in our area people who live in duplexes don’t park in their driveways. We believed this would further congest an already congested area.
      This energy could be transferred in the future to any area involving the neighborhood and safety, I believe.
      Strategies that could preserve the relationship that I could use would be coming from the angle of informing. I have used information about his values to discuss and inform others’ advocacy -when I can. Inviting him to see some work is a great idea -I will have to work on that area! I have already thought about the worst things that could happen on both aspects -and I still struggle with it. I have used the “worst case scenarios” to guide me thus far. I have given it a lot of thought since he was elected. I continue to keep it in the thinking tank -I have a personal goal to climb this wall and have a useful discussion at some point.

      • Thanks for the details–we’ve actually faced some similar issues, in terms of the traffic concerns, related to school closures around here, which change student census counts in the remaining schools. Sometimes these issues can divide communities, though, b/c of the competing interests–it sounds like the tactics you used did not.

        Let me know if I can be helpful as you think about how to navigate the always-messy world of politics and friendships. I know you’ll find a way.

    7. I actually have not sat in on a local government meeting, but will likely have the opportunity to do so while in my practicum, along with coalition meetings. These insights are a great starting point for me whenever I have the opportunity to attend and advocate. Thanks for sharing!!

    8. I have also not sat in on a local government meeting; however, I have had the opportunity in my practicum to attend a couple of coalition meetings. I imagine the local government is much different. I have considered attending some of the community education meeting discussing the public school system. I think that you made a great point about being prepared. One thing that I struggled with in the coalition meetings is a lack of knowledge on the topic. I felt when I attended the Safe Havens for Newborns Coalition that I was knowledgable on the topic as I have completed several papers and done much research. However, I found that on the local level and the implementation of the laws is very different than what I read about in the legislation and literature. I feel that enducating oneself about the topics on the agenda will aid in increasing the comments that are made. It will also increase the feeling of comfort and confidence to participate in the discussions. I do feel that often times it does take the public to bring a topic to those in the power to change it. I think in local government as well as in other aspects of government, that the status quo is good enough until enough people complain about it. Unfortunately, I also think that those in leadership don’t always know the current situation of what is going on in the community. I will take these suggestions and utilize them when I do attend a local government meeting!

      • Inertia is certainly a powerful force in many contexts, and local government isn’t immune to that, although I don’t know that they’re any more susceptible, necessarily. Thank you for sharing your experience of being able to intervene in the coalition more effectively when you are prepared–that’s an important reminder of how what we bring to a particular advocacy attempt is a big piece of the puzzle.

    9. Pingback: Happy Week! Three years in retrospect | Classroom to Capitol

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