Three Strategies To Immediately Impact Your Local Government

July 14, 2015 at 11:31 am 9 comments

Community Solutions MN

by Jason Bradley

I used to have a number of misconceptions about the way my City government was run. In fact, I probably yawned just like you did, and got ready to say “next”. Let me stop you right in your tracks for a moment. You see, what happens at the local level is really the most impactful to your everyday life. It may not get the headlines that the federal and state governments get, but I argue that the resolutions and ordinances City and County governments pass restrict your freedoms more and are more easily enforced. The fact that none of this hits the news should worry you greatly.

You see, I’ve been watching this for a long time, and I was completely blown away when I discovered how much of what is done at the City (and County) level is done “behind the curtain”. That’s not to say that they are making changes illegally, it just means that you are watching the wrong hand. Here are three things you can do right now to tip the scales in your favor:

  • Stop thinking that City Council meetings are where decisions are made. What do I mean by that? You can watch a City Council meeting, and see them vote on an issue right before your eyes. Yes, but did you notice how most of those votes are unanimous, or at least consistently in favor of a certain group of individuals on the Council? Did you also notice that they can (sometimes) make big decisions, or spend a lot of money without much discussion? It is because they have already put hours of time into talking about the topic, and you didn’t even know it. This is what has led to the old phrase “You can’t fight City Hall”. Public hearings are held on a subject only after the Council has had a chance to discuss it and come to a consensus. How can you fight that? You have to be present and involved in your City Council meetings (or at least be at some and watch some online). It lets your Council Members know that someone is watching them, but that only scratches the surface.
  • You need to have eyes and ears on the City work sessions. This is where the real work gets done. As one former Council Member in Crystal put it, this is an opportunity to talk freely about his/her opinions. Why? Because work sessions are almost never recorded. They are open to the public, but people very rarely attend these meetings. In Crystal, Mayor Jim Adams, was able to decide to just start recording them and put them on the City website. This was because there was so much information at these meetings that people weren’t hearing. It was from a work session that we were able to discover the proclivities of a local Councilman that believed that he could raise taxes anytime he wanted to, for any reason he wanted to, and that he preferred borrowing money to having cash. It is in these meetings that City staff presents their ideas, City Council people candidly discuss them, and a consensus is reached. The information that is often presented in the City Council packets is one-sided sales literature that supports the staff’s positions. If you were going to attend work sessions or City Council meetings, I’d choose the work sessions, and watch City Council sessions online. I’d also press to have at least the audio from work sessions available on the City website.
  • You need to get on a City Commission. Commissions are made up of groups of citizens approved by the City Council. They each review and provide a recommendation on a specific sector of City business. Various groups you might see are Charter, Planning, Parks and Recreation, Human Rights, Water Shed, and Environmental Quality commissions. There are also other iterations that vary from city to city. These commissions get the same ideas from staff as the Council, and often the same limited information. They are then tasked with recommending, recommending with changes, or not recommending the resolution, ordinance, or charter change. The Council often follows these recommendations, but not always. Being on one of these commissions gives you a chance to find out what is coming down the pike long before the public ever hears about it (which is a huge advantage), and allows you the opportunity to advise your City Council. Most commissions meet one night per month or less. These seats are also a great place to get experience for a run at a City Council seat someday.

As you can see, there is a lot to consider here. These three simple strategies can give you the ammunition you need to eliminate surprises, alert the public, and defeat dangerous ideas early in the process before they grow legs. It is difficult to change things that are well on their way to becoming law. Each City has got to have a handful of people that care enough to keep tabs on what their government is doing.

If that is you, e-mail us through our contact page, and we’ll be in contact to help you further!

Jason Bradley is an entrepreneur in the music industry (Jason Bradley Live and Paper Lanterns Intl) and owns a consulting/advocacy/education firm that specializes in non-partisan politics (Community Solutions MN). Jason Bradley helps others to reach their goals in music and reduce the size and influence of government.

Connect with Jason on Google+

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It’s My Honor to Serve You! Point of Sale to Set Sail!

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. wants2know  |  July 14, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    This article lays out the importance of public participation in local government. It has often been said “no one can do everything but everyone can do something.” Consider volunteering for a commission as part of maintenance on your home or business. It isn’t enough to call and complain. If each of us takes responsibility to do something and shares what we learn with others, we can make a difference that impacts our daily lives.

  • 2. Tom Karnowski  |  July 19, 2015 at 11:05 am

    Thanks for reflecting on the Crystal council work session where bonding was discussed as a vehicle to pay for a new public works building.
    I only wish you had detailed a more recent session where decisions were made by the council to ignore low interest rates for borrowing and instead empty the city’s cash coffers to pay for that building.
    Perhaps had citizens attended THAT work session, they might have encouraged the council to conserve their hard-earned cash to pay for an (apparently) unforeseen future emergency…like repairing our aging water mains.
    That’s the kind of expense cash reserves are normally reserved for.
    But that work-session shortsightedness ultimately pushed the council to raise taxes (fees) on Crystal residents via water bill increases.
    So Jason, I totally agree.
    Had I or other concerned citizens, attended that work session where irresponsible decisions to empty our city’s cash reserves were made, perhaps this council’s proclivity to “raise taxes anytime (they) want” might have been held in check.
    Mea culpa.

  • 3. wants2know  |  July 19, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    Reminds me of the Popeye cartoons in which the character Wimpy regularly declares, “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” The problem is when Tuesday comes, he still can’t pay for it on Tuesday and now he owes interest on something he not longer has in his possession. Money borrowed today for a capital project accrues interest that is added to the cost of the project which adds to the city’s budget as debt service and increases the budget. The typical government bond accrues interest for around 20 years and requires the city to be less able to add funds to their capital expense account to deal with future emergencies dealing with aging infrastructure that could have much greater costs.

  • 4. Tom Karnowski  |  July 20, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    Dear Anonymous Wants2know – First off, its a shame you’re fearful of using your name in your postings. Doing so would go a long way toward establishing your sincerity, not to mention letting us know you indeed possess the courage of your convictions. That said, I sure hope the Crystal council isn’t adapting the economic philosophy you’re borrowing from a 1932 Popeye cartoon. I’m hopeful even THEY know there’s a difference between consuming a 10¢ hamburger in the 30’s and building a $13.5 million permanent structure in 2015. And your concern about insuring the city has funds for “future emergencies dealing with aging infrastructure” is exactly my point. A mere TWO MONTHS after the council emptied the city’s cash reserves to go the all-cash route to pay for the new municipal building, what happened? An emergency dealing with aging infrastructure (our water mains)! Cash reserves should be considered a necessity for a city like Crystal because no one has a crystal ball. But thanks to the council’s decision to deplete its reserves, there was nothing left in the city till to pay the $1.2 million cost of repairing the mains. So what did the council do? Immediately raise taxes (fees) on Crystal citizens to pay for their lack of planning and foresight. This “spend and tax” mentality will not play well in the future for Crystal, and we hope this council commits itself to managing city funds more responsibly.

  • 5. wants2know  |  July 20, 2015 at 2:37 pm

    Dear Tom- I am not fearful of using my name, I choose not to have to engage in countless hours of defending myself against vicious mean spirited attacks that have no merit but cannot be allowed to go unanswered. I have far more productive ways to use my time.

    You completely miss my point in the analogy I used which is paying cash for something will cost less and avoid commitment of future monies THAT CAN BE SAVED to build the reserve fund. It avoids interest costs and long term commitment of dollars which is fiscally imprudent when you have to estimate your future income on vagaries such as cuts in Local government aid, increased employee wages and benefit costs. You have only to look at the state pension plans or Social Security to illustrate what happens when projecting what future incomes will be to support past commitments.

    Creating long term debt service means you have fewer funds available to respond to emergency needs. As of December 31, 2013 the city’s debt service obligation was about 1,702,041.00. Don’t you think not bonding is cost effective in holding the line on taxes? Especially, with a still seriously deflated market rate value for real estate.
    According to the Comprehensive Financial Plan through January 01, 2014 The General Bonding debt in Crystal was $64.27 per capita. That money pays for the hamburger last Tuesday.

  • 6. Tom Karnowski  |  July 21, 2015 at 9:36 am

    Dear He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named: Yes, it is possible that creating long term debt service MIGHT mean “fewer funds (will be) available to respond to emergency needs”. What we know FOR SURE is the fact that the Crystal council emptied its cash reserves so significantly, it did NOT have “funds available to respond to emergency needs” when that emergency need (water main repair) arose a mere two months after they cast their vote to ignore bonding/partial bonding as a funding mechanism. Now, Crystal citizens are on the hook for an immediate tax (fee) increase to make up for the $1.2 million in funds the city needs to meet this “emergency need”. My point? A responsible city keeps sufficient cash reserves exactly because no one owns a crystal ball. This continues to be an open & shut case of municipal shortsightedness, and Crystal deserves better!

  • 7. wants2know  |  July 21, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    What is really interesting is the amount for debt service listed in the 2014 Comprehensive Financial Analysis Report would have covered the cost of the “emergency”repair with money left over. IF past councils had not been so eager to bond and spend there would have been money in the capital funding account to PAY CASH for the currently necessary repair also without bonding costs.

    The amount spent for debt service according to the report was $1.7 million. The whole point of having a fund for capital expenses is to be able to pay for city buildings and infrastructure costs WITHOUT having to borrow money and pay interest to do so.

    Is this really municipal shortsightedness or fiscally responsible long range planning to avoid similar situations in the future. If we stop spending more than we receive in revenue we rebuild the fund for future projects with out raising taxes. Once the needed amount for the water line project is paid off the council has the ability to reduce its next levy on the taxpayers.

    Wouldn’t it be novel if we could stop increasing tax levies because we are spending available funds rather than paying the cost of money borrowed years ago?

  • 8. Tom Karnowski  |  July 21, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    Dear Nameless – To answer your question: Yes, this is really municipal shortsightedness…and thanks for asking.

    • 9. communitysolutionsmn  |  August 18, 2015 at 11:25 am

      If someone wants to remain anonymous they can do so without your smart ass comments.


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