I have represented local governmental bodies my entire legal career, including municipalities, school districts, fire protection districts, sanitary sewer districts and others. As a more or less objective observer, one who is neither sitting in the hot seat nor part of the angry mob, I seen what works and what does not work. The statement, “No one fights City Hall and wins,” is only partially true. I have witnessed a victorious campaign to storm the gate on one or two occasions. On those rare occasions, the angry mob “won”.
From my view, however, they were victories with many casualties. There is a more effective way to fight City Hall. In fact, it should not be a fight at all.
People who run for local office usually do it with good and honorable intentions. They are members of your community. They are your neighbors. They live where you live, and they want what is best for their community like you do. Understanding that should inform how you address City Hall. Instead of fighting City Hall, consider appealing to City Hall.
I have seen many people effectively appeal to their local governing officials with very successful, positive results. The following eight-fold plan for taking on City Hall incorporates the things that successful people do when they have an issue to address to their local governments:
1. Be informed. I have found in the two-plus decades that I have been involved on the “inside” that most people who rant and rave do not have all the facts. Ranters and ravers jump to conclusions that are largely based on suspicion and distrust, but accurate, factual information is lacking. They have a lot of heat, but little light. Worse than having no facts at all is having a combination of partial facts, misinformation and assumptions. Do your homework, get informed and come armed with the facts.
2. Be understanding. Try to understand why your local governmental body may be taking the course of action that you find objectionable. While you may not agree with the reason, you can be assured there is a reason for the action being taken. Do not assume that the action is rooted in bad intentions. Remember, these are your neighbors that are making these decisions. I am not saying to rule out questionable intentions, but give people the benefit of the doubt.
In my opinion, after having been involved in hundreds, maybe thousands of decisions, I can say with absolute honesty and confidence that I have rarely witnessed decisions being made with actual inappropriate intentions (much less with bad intentions). Sometimes decisions are made based upon policies, philosophies and goals that I may not agree with. Sometimes decisions are made lacking full information and understanding of the impact on certain people. Sometimes decisions are made out of expediency, to minimize cost, or in reaction to certain identified problems (sometimes without considering other problems the decision might cause).
Sometimes council/board members react impatiently, get angry, and may even become vindictive. Rarely, if ever, will you find an entire board or council acting on those impulses. In fact, I have never seen it. Individuals may be inclined to act that way, but boards and councils tend to counteract those impulses. Coming in to City Hall with pitchforks will likely draw an angry, defensive response, but that does not mean that City Hall has made its decisions based upon an intention to harm the community. If you come in with some understanding of why City Hall may be acting or making decisions the way it is and acknowledge that, your voice is much more likely to be heard.
3. See the big picture. Sometimes citizens do identify issues that public officials and public employees fail to see. Public officials and employees may miss the trees for the forest. On the other hand, the mistake that I see almost universally from citizens is that they get lost in the trees and fail to see the forest. They only see how they are affected and fail to consider the bigger picture.
Your public officials have the responsibility for the entire city and all of its citizens and businesses (or the entire school district and all of the schools and students, or insert the appropriate big picture phrase). Decisions must be made taking the big picture into account as well as the details. This is an extension of the second point. Look at the issue from the big picture before launching ahead with your point and make sure you address the big picture as well as the specific issues you have.
4. Be thoughtful. The fourth point is simply an extension of the first three. Many people who address issues to public bodies do it with emotion, anger and aggression. While that approach can work (rarely), more often than not it only serves to raise the hackles of public officials and employees. Instead of being receptive, they will raise the drawbridge and put the armor on. Whatever impetus they had for taking the course of action they have chosen will become hardened, and they will be defensive.
Most people who rant and rave have not followed the first three tips above. They have not informed themselves; they have not tried to understand or given any benefit of the doubt to the public officials; and they have not considered the big picture. If you come in with knowledge, understanding and some sense of what the big picture looks like, you are much more apt to find a receptive public official or employee who is willing to hear what you have to say and weigh it in the considerations that are being made. A thoughtful, knowledgeable, understanding approach is a winning approach.
5. Engage people. People have a tendency to view government as an amorphous actor, like a giant amoeba gobbling things up without thought to the individuals in the way and having a mind of its own. “Government”, of course, is a group of people with various roles and responsibilities. Again, these people are your neighbors.
To deal with City Hall effectively, you must engage people, and avoid making the mistake of attacking “City Hall”. After all, “City Hall” is people. Because they are people, they are approachable. Pick up your phone and give them a call. Make appointments to meet with them. Get to know them. Though you have something to say, spend some time listening to them. Again, knowledge and understanding are, perhaps, your most valuable weapons. Then, after you have engaged them, they will listen to you.
6. Talk to the right people. Keep in mind that the people who make up the governmental body all play different roles. The elected officials are elected from the community. They, as a group, are the decision makers and policy setters. Employees may or may not be citizens in your community, but they are people too just doing their jobs implementing the rules and the policies set by the elected officials.
Some people have more ability to make decisions than other. You are probably wasting your breath making an impassioned plea to the window clerk. Identify the right person in the right department to speak to and work your way up the chain of command. Be understanding (point 2 again) that staff are simply carrying out policies set by department heads and governing boards, and department heads are carrying out policies set by governing boards. You need to get to the level where the decisions can be made.
This may sound funny, but make sure you are also talking to the right governmental body! People sometimes call a municipality to complain about a school district or park district issue. Does your municipality have its own fire department, or is there a separate fire district? Do not call the county to complain about a township road.
7. Organize. Nothing is more effective than a knowledgeable, understanding group of people. Lone voices ranting in the wilderness tend not to be heard and are easily dismissed, but a determined, informed, understanding group of people who are organized cannot be dismissed and must be taken seriously.
Organize your neighbors. Your neighbors are the neighbors of the elected officials. Have a plan. Inform the people that you are organizing and help them understand. In fact, organizing with other people will help you all to have more knowledge and be more understanding and, therefore, be more effective.
8. Memorialize it. Government does this, so you should do it too. Keep records. Keep documentation. Create a paper trail. If you do not get the response you are looking for from the governmental official or employee with whom you have first contact, memorialize your interactions, and then go to the next level. When you make contact with the next level, send a letter attaching prior communications and copy the lower level official. You can do this all the way up the chain. This is an effective way to obtain a positive resolution for the issue that you have. By the time you get to the decision-making level, you will have created a paper trail and documented what you have done. If the lower level employees/officials have been unresponsive or not responded appropriately, your paper trail will show it.
In my opinion, people should never “fight City Hall”. You can effectively engage your local government officials and employees to tackle the problems that you see, to bring about positive changes in your community and to hold your government officials accountable to make good decisions. As with any war, you need to be tactical and determined. You need to be informed and think through your strategy. You need to understand “the other side”. Then you need to engage your local governmental body effectively using the tools that I have identified. If you do that, you will be successful.
Remember this: Sometimes success means compromise, but that is better than being cut off at the knees. Much of the decisions that are made by local governmental bodies involve weighing one or more sets of interests against other sets of interests. They are charged with doing what is best for the community as a whole and, in the context, what is best for individual members of the community. That often means balancing of the interests and compromise.Kevin G. Drendel Drendel & Jansons Law Group 111 Flinn Street Batavia, IL 60510 (630) 406-5440 (630) 406-6179 fax [email protected] foxvalleyestateplanning.com