By Kathryn Hazelett
Editor’s note: This is the final entry in a series of blog posts about the legislative process on the state, federal, and local levels, and what you can do to help create and influence policy as a citizen. Entries from the rest of the series are linked at the bottom of the post.
Potholes, recycling, parks and trails – these all have one important thing in common. They are (generally) the responsibility of your local government. As we wrap up our series on how to take an idea and turn it into policy, we have one final level of government to discuss and that is your city, county, or town’s local government.
Unlike the state and federal governments, which by and large have the same basic structure, local governments take many different forms. Some cities have powerful mayors, some have city managers who run the day-to-day operations, some (like Little Rock), have a hybrid. Most cities also have some version of a city council or board, which is a group of people elected to represent areas of the city, much like state senators and representatives.
County government plays a bit of a different role — one set out by each state. County officials generally administer elections, register voters, maintain a jail and enforce the laws, keep vital records (such as birth certificates), record deeds, and maintain records. By and large, counties do not pass laws; an exception is zoning and building regulations.
The thing that matters for our purposes is being able to determine who has the authority to change or enact a new policy. Once again you’ll want to keep an eye out for election dates and town hall meetings (these are often a great opportunity to talk with the folks who are running to discuss your idea). Then, once people are elected, check the city’s (county/town) website for the ways to contact your elected council members and mayor or city manager. It’s also often possible to find them on social media and strike up a conversation that way.
Whatever form your local government takes, there will be regular public meetings (usually weekly or monthly) where issues are discussed and votes are cast, and there’s usually a time set aside for public comments on agenda items. Check your local government’s website or community calendar to find out meeting details.
One thing that I have found to be true is that your city council people often share your thoughts and concerns; they live in your neighborhood (or one close by) and have also noticed that the city bus route doesn’t really get your where you need to go or have realized that the sidewalks go one block and abruptly end, preventing safe pedestrian transit. Voicing your concerns about specific issues helps policy makers know where to focus their efforts and how to prioritize projects.
There is a great saying that all politics is local. In this case, it really is true.
Advocacy 101 Series