Making Your Voice Heard at City Hall

CityHall

Since the results of the presidential election, I’ve met a lot of Sacramentans who want to get more engaged in local politics and public policy. This is wonderful news! Generally, few people pay attention to what’s going on at City Hall, even though local decisions – be it on land use, policing, or street maintenance – have a very direct impact on residents’ day-to-day quality of life.

For example, a recent study by the Advancement Project  found that only one-in-ten Californians  contacted a public official in the past year;  nine-in-ten Californians had not even attended a “meeting where political issues are discussed.”

That’s a lost opportunity for a number of reasons. First, citizen engagement can make a big difference at the city level. No really. In a recent survey of California city officials, over 80 percent agreed that “preferences emerging from public deliberation had an impact on final decisions.” I’ve witnessed and heard the same from councilmembers.

Equally important, if civically-minded citizens never show up, someone else will fill that vacuum. In the same survey, 76 percent of city officials report that public meetings are “typically dominated by people with narrow agendas.” Yikes.

Finally, civic engagement can be personally fulfilling! Again, really. Science even says so. Civic engagement, particularly when done with neighbors or as part of a group, builds community and can increase people’s sense of life satisfaction.

And, the good news is, in Sacramento it is especially easy for citizens to advocate for local policy change. So, as someone who works in the government transparency field, here’s my quick primer on how to make your voice heard at City Hall.

  1. Meet Your Councilmember.

One of the very best ways to affect change is to speak directly with your councilmember. On any given day your average councilmember has dozens of policy issues jostling for their attention: a one-on-one conversation can elevate your issue above the noise. A 30-minute conversation can also cover more ground and leave a more lasting impression than a typical letter.

Unlike your congressperson or state legislator, who represent so many residents that substantive personal contact with constituents is near mathematically impossible, I’ve found Sacramento city councilmembers and their staff to be very accessible. Most are eager to have coffee with a constituent they have not had the opportunity to hear from before. To request a meeting, call (916) 808-5300 and ask to speak to your councilmember’s scheduler. Try and set things up at least two to three weeks in advance and understand they are doing their best to fit you into a very busy schedule. You will probably be asked to email over a one to two paragraph description of what you’d like to discuss to help make the meeting as productive as possible.

Sometimes councilmembers just will not have time to meet. Don’t get discouraged! Many councilmembers have community office hours or attend neighborhood meetings (often noticed in their newsletter, which you should sign up for!) where you’ll have an opportunity to speak with them without a formal meeting. In addition, each councilmember has two to three staff who advise them on policy matters: a meeting with staff can be equally valuable, especially because they will often have more time to consider your concerns.

  1. Email your councilmember.

The fastest way to let your councilmember know what you think is to email or call them. Most councilmembers personally read the email you send them, unfiltered by staff, so this can be a very effective way of letting your direct representative know your concerns. Here is the official contact information for every councilmember:

What’s that — not sure who your councilmember is? Don’t worry, you are far from the first. The city has a helpful council district locator tool here. Simply enter your street address and the tool will spit out your district and councilmember!

  1. Speak at a Council Meeting.

Dais

Most changes in city policy are decided by the city council at a public meeting. If the change is being done through a city ordinance, it will first have to be discussed at the city council’s Law & Legislation Committee (affectionately called “L&L”), which vets policy changes before they go to the full City Council for a vote. With both City Council and L&L meetings, the public is given the opportunity to directly address decision-makers on any item before they vote.

The hardest thing is to know when an item you are interested in is coming before the council. City council and standing committee agendas are posted five days in advance on the city’s website. In this case, that means on Thursdays by 5:00 p.m. for both the City Council and L&L. Unfortunately, there is presently no way to subscribe to council agendas by email (RSS is available), so you either need to monitor the council’s agenda weekly or, if there’s a particular upcoming issue you are interested in, ask your councilmember or the city clerk when they expect that issue to come before the council.

You must appear in person to speak at a meeting. The city council generally meets weekly on Tuesdays at 5:00 p.m. in the New City Hall council chambers, located at 915 I St. The Law & Legislation Committee typically meets every second and fourth Tuesday at 3:00 p.m. also in council chambers. The city clerk maintains an up-to-date calendar of council and standing committee meeting dates online.

To comment, you must first complete a speaker slip and hand it to a city clerk staffer who will be conspicuously seated at a desk on the left side of the room, in front of the council dais. Speaker slips and pencils are available on a counter at the back of the city council chamber. However, you can also download, print, and complete a speaker slip at home and bring it to the meeting. The most important thing is to look up the item number you want to speak on in the agenda and mark it on your speaker slip; otherwise the city clerk will not know when to call you up to speak. If you are at all confused, there are lots of staff around who are happy to help.

When you are called, you will have two minutes to speak. A timer on a screen in front of you will count down the time you have left. Once your time is up, you need to quickly wrap up your comment in about 5-10 seconds or the meeting chair may cut you off. Remember that council meetings can drag on late into the night and it’s hard to predict when an agenda item will come up … be prepared to wait a few hours and bring a good book!

  1. Submit a Written Comment.

Another way to get your views before the council at a meeting is to submit an electronic comment. The “eComment” feature is conveniently located next to where the agendas are posted. Simply click on the eComment button, scroll down and select the agenda item you wish to comment on, and then write your message. Electronic comments are made available to councilmembers at the dais as agenda items come up.  Because it is fully electronic, you can even submit an eComment up to 15 minutes before the start of the meeting and it will be included as part of the official record.

eComment

eComment presently only accommodates 1,000 characters of text (or about 7 tweets), so keep your comment pithy.

  1. Join a Group!

As the saying goes, there is strength in numbers. There are many groups that are active in trying to make the City a better place. Joining a group is a good way to become aware of what’s going on, be a part of a community, and effectuate change. There are so many groups out there for people of every political stripe, here are just a few your Sacramentality Team are proud members of:

  • League of Women Voters: For the past few years I have been a member of the local chapter, which works to promote honest, ethical, and transparent government. We recently partnered with the City Council and Common Cause (where, full disclosure, I work!) to create a City Ethics Commission, Ethics Code, and Redistricting Commission — one of the most significant local governance reform packages in the state.
  • Local Democratic Clubs: Sacramento is a Democratic town, and as the state capitol an especially political town. The County Party has a list of almost two dozen local Democratic clubs, many of which are active at the City level. For example, Caity is the Fundraising Director for the Fem Dems of Sacramento, which recently advocated for the City to take a closer look at its diversity practices to ensure its workforce is diverse and equitably paid.
  • Neighborhood Associations: Want to meet your neighbors, beautify your street, get speedbumps installed, and discuss the City’s crime prevention strategy? The City has dozens of neighborhood associations across the City that do just that each year. Associations tend to have close relationships with councilmembers and can be good catalysts for change. For example, Devin co-founded and is a board member of the Pocket-Greenhaven Community Association, where he has hosted a number of community events and advocated for funding for community priorities.

***

As this short list indicates, there are so many ways to be civically active in our City. How are you civically active in Sacramento?

Is there a tip that should have made this list? Let us know in the comments below.

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