Q: What’re the first steps someone needs to take to get involved in local government? And do you need to be affiliated with a party? — Citizen Newbie
A: Newbie, I’m going to dodge the intent of this question, which is how to participate personally in the electoral process. But that gives me an excuse to pull out a maxim I’ve learned along the political way. There are two very different jobs that elected officials must do: campaign for office, and govern once in office. These are very different, fundamentally different; thus, the maxim: campaigning is not governing. (You don’t need to be affiliated with a party to do either, but rarely does someone get elected without a party affiliation. That’s a topic for another post.)
This blog is focused mostly on the governing part. If you don’t particularly want to run for office, but are concerned about a particular local issue, you can of course get politically involved. To do that, you need to know how to navigate the legislative process.
The collective legislative personality of cities can vary widely. One city might use different rules of order than another’s. Their council meetings could be typically very short or typically very long (<– Bloomington). How each one actually conducts business is as different as each city is different from another.
If you’re trying, though, to follow a particular issue as it works — or, past tense, worked — its way through the local process, there are some basic things that happen everywhere. This guide to how to follow an item through the city of Bloomington’s legislative process should get your feet wet in any city, no matter how different their process is.
Before you continue, revisit this post from a couple of weeks ago for a definition of terms and a description of our Council’s process. There are six different sources of information about legislation, which we’ll cover in turn:
- the Council office
- the packet
- the video
- the minutes
- the ordinance
- the city code
Now, let’s say you love iguanas. That’s a thing, right? You love iguanas, but you hear that there’s going to be an ordinance to ban iguanas. No! It can’t be. I have to say something! You want to insert yourself into the political process to keep iguanas from being banned in Bloomington. (Note: This is just an example. Iguanas are NOT being banned in Bloomington.)
The Council office
First, you have to find out: is it just talk, or is there actual iguana-banning legislation in existence? The Council doesn’t approve anything that’s not in writing, so just because someone talks about how iguanas are gonna be banned doesn’t mean an ordinance exists yet. You have to find out.
You can do so by going there in person, by calling, by email, or by looking at the Council’s website. If you don’t know for sure that legislation exists, your best bet is to email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 812-349-3409 during regular business hours (9 am – 5 pm Mon. – Fri. local time), or stop by our offices, the first suite you see upon entering City Hall at 401 N. Morton St.
When you know legislation exists, get its number, which in Bloomington is in the the form yy-xx, where yy is the last two digits of the year and xx is the serial number of that ordinance, resolution, or appropriations ordinance so far that year (e.g.: “Ordinance 16-99”). Now you can follow that legislation, and search for details about it online.
All of our meetings and legislation have to be advertised. We post paper versions of the Council’s weekly schedule and the agenda for each meeting physically in boxes at City Hall, and of course on the Council website. We also prepare a single weekly legislative packet with our calendar, meeting agendas, the ordinances themselves and all the information pertaining to them. The packet for the coming Wednesday’s Council meeting comes out the Friday before.
Here’s the packet for the meeting where we heard presentation of the 2017 budget. It’s the same information that councilmembers deliberate over. It may not be the first time we’re hearing about the issue, but it’s the first time we’re seeing in writing the actual issue to be voted on. If you’re going to attend the Council meeting where the ordinance will be presented, having the packet at hand either on paper or on a digital device is useful, if not crucial, to understanding and being able to follow fully the issue at hand.
Say you want to be there for the meeting. Regular sessions and committee hearings are typically scheduled for Wednesday nights in Council Chambers, and usually start at 7;30. If you can make it, great. You can even address the Council about banning iguanas.
But let’s say you can’t make it. Or let’s say you’re hearing about this issue after it was decided, and you want to follow how the deliberation went. Luckily, there’s video.
In fact, public-access television here has a rich history. Bloomington’s archive of televised public meetings goes back to 1974 — one of the oldest archives of video of public meetings anywhere. Most of that is not readily available online, but local government meetings going back to 2006 are. Go to Community Access Television Services and search for “city council” for meetings going back to 2012. You can also click on the Video Archive button to find meetings that go back as far as 2006. Here, for example, is video of the special session to hear presentation of the 2017 city budget.
What happens at the meeting may be on video, but also has to be written out. That’s the main job of the City Clerk, who prepares the written public record of the meeting in as much detail as practical. The minutes (which aren’t out yet for the 2017 budget hearing two days ago, so no link yet) explain how the discussion went, how councilmembers voted and why. They rarely quote discussions word-for-word, so being able to watch the video can be crucial to understanding the discussion.
If the ordinance gets passed, it gets published by the Clerk in various places physical and virtual. For the sake of practicality, I’ll just put the latter here: the Clerk’s online legislation center page. On that page is also an index of legislation for the year, where you can see at a glance what was proposed, and who voted how. (The legislative index includes defeated legislation, although defeated legislation does not otherwise make it in full to this page.)
Ordinances change city code, which is the law passed by the City Council that applies only within city limits. You can review the entire city code online. It may take some weeks or months for the actual code to change in the online version; theoretically the ordinance is law upon signature by the Mayor and physical publication by the Clerk. The online code is pretty reliably current, but if the ordinance you’re concerned about was passed very recently, check with the Council office to make sure.
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