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Opinion

What the Devil won't tell you

You say you want to 'fight City Hall': Here's how to show up

A quick guide to taking part in local government

The idea that somehow there's power in not showing up, in denying and skipping out on politics, is a lie. "Ignore the powers that be if you really want to let them know what's what," some people think. "They're all the same."

Ignore them at your peril. Avoid the political process all you want. It won’t avoid you. It will just roll right over you.

The truth is both far more exciting and pedestrian. Enormous power resides in showing up to speak your mind. I’m dead serious. I’ve seen it 1,000 times if I’ve seen it once. Citizens show up and make themselves heard, and the powers that be pay attention.

Local elected officials, such as city council or board members, are often eager to please or split the differences. They tend to be fans of smoothing things out, and generally get people to make nice. Even if you can’t stop something you think is bad from happening, you can often make it less bad. Start early enough in the process and you can even take something bad and make it good.

So we here at the Tucson Sentinel have started publishing rundowns of what to expect at upcoming public meetings so that you can plug in and make some change in the Greater Pueblo Viejo.

The downside of showing up is that the inevitable boredom can be confusing to the uninitiated. 

Some of us have been through enough of those meetings to cover them with our third eye. The other two are busy balancing checkbooks or returning emails.

We all started as you did, wondering "what the funk are they doing now?" "Why are they going into a separate room to talk about stuff?"  And "wait, they just cleared half the agenda with a single vote!?"

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So here's a quick guide to the meetings of city and town councils, the Board of Supervisors, school district governing boards, and all the rest.

The agenda

First thing you gotta do is get your paws on an agenda. It will be available online. Just search “X town council/unified school district governing board agenda.” Some are easier than others to find. If you have any (and I mean any) trouble, call the clerk's office and have them tell you where to find it or just email it to you.

No board, council or commission can have a meeting without posting the items they will discuss or act on so that the public will know what they are up to. In fact, no quorum can meet without an agenda. In small counties where there are three supervisors, a quorum is just two people. So they have to avoid each other in public or post an agenda to say they will be in the same vicinity of each other. Two of them show up at Olive Garden and they have problems.

All items must be posted on an agenda 24 hours before the meeting, but that also means the agenda can be changed up to 24 hours before the meeting — and things can be added right up to that deadline.

This is state law. Of course, the Legislature exempts itself from open meeting laws so they are free to write entire pieces of statewide law at 4 a.m. after they just thought them up. And they have done this.

This is important: Have the local officials you're paying attention to send you background material if it's not provided online. That will have the reports, correspondence, recommendations and stuff the elected officials will get to inform their vote. You are entitled to it to because it belongs to you. It's public information. It's not the exclusive rights of the governing body, the staff or the media. It's yours. You pay for it every time you pay your property tax or sales tax.

You aren’t stupid. They can’t write.

The f thing you will notice is that the agenda is not necessarily written in what we know as “English” or “Spanish.” It’s written in a god-awful dialect of Bureaucratese. Municipal and school district staffers make the mistake of writing reports as if they are writing reports. It’s meant to show they take the issue seriously rather than communicating thoughts and ideas with what the experts call "clarity."

Normal people in normal conversation sound like this:

Board member: “So where is the money going to come from?”

Staffer: “We are still trying to figure it out.”

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Meetingspeak goes sounds entirely different, with exactly the same Q and  A:

Board member: “Have we identified a dedicated revenue stream for this item or will it be a one-time expenditure from the general fund?”

Staffer: "Madam chairwoman, Doctor Professor Board member I'm actually responding to … It’s my understanding that while progress has been made regarding the identification of a discreet and self-sustaining funding mechanism, there are constraints on the general fund and limitations from a legal standpoint of the enterprise funds.We are continuing to work within the existing budgetary framework for the current fiscal year and are looking for ways to expand our horizon to identify future monies in beginning with the upcoming budget process.”

It’s not indecipherable, but three hours of this stuff is grueling. Five or six hours starts to interest the folks at Amnesty International who investigate torture.

Any time someone says “It’s my understanding …” take that to mean the speaker wants full credit for being informed, but zero accountability for what they will say. “It’s not a fact … it’s my understanding based on what my idiot colleagues have told me.”

You may have to read slowly and Google a lot but the background material should bring you up to date on how the item arrived on the agenda. It can also include arguments in favor and against it because letters from the community related to the issue are part of the public record.

Basics

Get to the meeting on time, if you're going in person. Tune in to the live-stream if you're sitting at home. The board, council and even commissions can seem to have eight things before the item you might care about but they can move things around at their whim. Also, they can flash right through entire sections of the agenda in a few nanoseconds.

Don't miss your item by being late.

Where to sit. As a reporter, I think sitting in the back is better because it keeps everyone you might want to ask questions of in front of you. People can bolt, and if you are sitting in front, you’ll never notice.

If you're showing up to press your cause, bring numbers. If you can pack the joint, do it with people on your side. Brutal displays of numerical power can work wonders. Just be respectful about it. Just as the innate human "desire to please" animates elected officials, so too does the joy in sticking it to the jerks. Don't ask to be roadkill. 

If it’s just you, you can still effect change. Bring up legit concerns and you can get an elected body to punt like the Arizona Wildcats on fourth and three. They will gladly take a delay over leaving a squeaky wheel (you) ungreased. Then you have to deal with whomever you have to deal with (staff, a developer or a local business) prior to the next vote.

Also, maybe you like an idea the council or board is pursuing. Show up for those too because the angry tend to be more motivated than the satisfied. The angry can affect changes you might not like.

Different boards and commissions have different deadlines for how public input — whether written comments or speaking at the "call to the audience" — is supposed to be delivered. They will be on the agenda.

You will be asked to fill out a speaker card, either in person or online. Your comment becomes part of the public record, too, because the rest of the public has a right to know who you are. 

The meeting begins

Proceedings often start with an invocation and Pledge of Allegiance. Lately, the Tucson City Council's been skipping over the pledge section of the agenda during their virtual meetings.

Yes, the Supreme Court has ruled in 1983 (Marsh v. Chambers) and 2014 (Town of Greece v. Galloway) that these invocations are constitutional. Suck it up, atheists.

The pledge would seem to violate the First Amendment and Second Commandment but apparently, anything less is an affront to God-fearing patriots everywhere. The Supreme Court has ruled you don’t have to recite it.

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Personally, I don’t pledge allegiance to flags. The U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights? Sure. Flags? Why not just chant “USA!” “USA!” five times and be done with nationalist bravado?

Start early

There's an agenda item. You hear about it and show up to the meeting. You are nice and polite. You get a concession or two but you feel cheated you didn't get more.

Here's where you learn the real power to affect change is found in showing up early in the process or — here's an idea — joining a board or a commission. 

Check advisory commission meetings. Elected officials love these things for two reasons: 1) A citizens board will do a lot of the work on an issue and resolve problems the politicians won't have to deal with; and 2) Elected board or council members just love the idea of "following the recommendations of the people." There's less downside for them if they rubber stamp whatever comes percolating out of a citizens advisory board. 

Other times elected officials can just put something on the agenda for discussion or action, which can include approval if they have the votes for a pet project. Usually, these proposals will get kicked back to the staff or advisory panel to flesh the issue out more before going back for a final vote. This is your cue to say "I would like to be involved."

Staff opinion can also carry a lot of weight when the decision time comes. Get in good with them and the struggle becomes a lot easier. They are also experts on their topic and you have the opportunity to learn from them. The straight line to what you want may get a lot more crooked the more you learn about an issue. The staffer can be your ace in the hole if you can enlist them to solve your problem in ways that makes technical sense to them.

If you wait until the second reading ... it's not going to go as well.

The small stuff

Upon arrival, you might find the dais empty and a bunch of people milling around.

That’s probably executive session. It just means the electeds meeting with lawyers away from the public because the sit-down is covered by attorney-client privilege. So it’s the one part of the agenda that’s carried out in secret, but whatever topics are being discussed need to be disclosed in the agenda.

Executive sessions can cover lawsuits and pending real estate deals. Public strategizing over negotiations don’t serve the public interest. The community’s representatives should not be publicly declaring: “The most we’ll pay for that piece of property is $1.2 million. But don’t tell the owner because we’re trying to snag it for $600,000.”

Personnel issues fall under it, too, so a staffer won’t be slandered in public meetings.

These meetings last as long as they last. They can take as quick as 10 minutes or go on for an hour.

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Liquor license applications: The county and municipalities have to approve these and tend to blast through them unless a neighborhood freaks out about the evils available so close to them.

Consent agenda: It’s a real time-saver and that’s all it’s meant to be. So you will suddenly see half the agenda get approved with a single vote. These are small-ticket items that have been budgeted but the board or council still has to approve when the money is spent. It’s called “appropriations.” Routine appointments and other non-controversial stuff that legally needs to be voted on but nobody really has any questions about are also rolled into the consent package.

Is there a chance elected leaders can slam something through they don't want anyone to know about? Yes. 

So I like having contrarians sitting on these civic conclaves. The Ally Millers of the world will go over the consent agenda and pick out items they want more answers on and many of those questions might be stupid. But the practice is not. 

It keeps everyone on their toes and prevents Kozachik and Co., from getting a million-dollar consulting contract or the construction of ChuckWorld on a beach in Mexico.

(ChuckWorld and Koz and Co., are writer-indulgent fictions meant to illustrate a point. Do not start passing that around Facebook as if it's fact.).

Call to the public: If you are going to speak about a specific agenda item, wait for that agenda item to come up during the meeting, if there's a "public hearing" scheduled for it. Otherwise, this is your shot. You've got three minutes. Or sometimes just two.

Just realize any topic you bring up that’s not on the agenda, the board is legally forbidden from taking any action. They can refer the item for a future meeting. This isn’t a plot. This is obedience to the state Open Meeting Law.

It’s so board or council members can’t have a plants in the audience who might stand up and demand Reid Park be turned into a Trump-branded casino and tiger exhibit and the council can quickly approve it without giving the public any heads up this was coming.

Updates from staff: There's some self-explanatory stuff where the board or council will hear reports from the chief executive, topics individual members want to discuss among themselves or items a public board or commission wants them to go over.

These items are meant for discussion and while they can "direct staff" to flesh out an item for future action they can not suddenly create laws out of items listed for discussion. 

Pay attention to local news: A lot of times the press covers what you might care about with a bunch of turn-of-the-screw stories. It should provide background that informs.

Also, contact us. Let the media know if there's an issue you care about. If you aren't getting the answers — we can give it a shot. I've got supervisors and council members on speed dial. Get media coverage and suddenly it's harder to ignore the issue. 

Laws and rezonings that may come

A word about rezonings. We may see a resurgence of them because residential construction has lagged in recent decades and prices are through the roof.

Realize that a developer has an absolute right to build a project that meets zoning regulations, so long as he or she follows the applicable subdivision laws. A developer has zero right to a rezoning. The burden is on the developer to prove the project will benefit the community. In fact, buying land zoned for low-density development and asking for a more densely zoned project is more of an act of land speculation than property development.

It’s buying low, making changes to what’s allowed on the land, and then selling high. The last people who want zoning laws to change are developers engaged in this kind of speculation.

Also, 20 percent of adjacent land owners (in either area or number) can force a supermajority vote on rezonings.

It should be noted, school boards don’t figure into rezonings.

Rezonings are among the kind of ordinances that first require a public hearing. So too are any new laws that authorize collecting more money, through taxes or fees. That hearing can conclude 6 seconds before the project is approved, but it is required. So this is your chance to speak your mind and tell your representatives what's what.

Then there's the difference between an ordinary new law, and an emergency measure. The crucial time is the first reading, because that’s when the electeds vote aye or no. But laws dont’t take effect until 30 days after passage — unless an "emergency" is declared by the board or council. In which case, the new ordinance or directive can take effect sooner. And that's why you'll hear a clerk intone "and declaring an emergency" after reading the title of a measure so often during a City Council meeting, even if the ordinance doesn't seem like it's really about an emergency. That just means it'll be effective more quickly.

Run for something

At some point during this process, it's natural to think "Hey, these folks are no smarter than me and they are in charge. Why can't I be in charge?" You might want to run with that idea.

No, the people in charge aren't smarter than you, but they tend to be more steeped in issues. As you learn more, I mean, why not you?  

All those seats on the council, school board or county board belong to you. They don't belong to the person who sits in it for a single second longer than their current term. Those offices don't belong to a political party, so don't listen to people who say "never primary (used as verb) an incumbent." 

The members of the party may hate you or come after you, but they will gladly take your donation and help with voter contacts when it's all over. If you win, they are going to be on your side. If you lose, they'll probably help you next time. 

Note: For reasons passing understanding, the local Republicans may require a blood oath to support every single item they demand. Understand, there is disagreement about this within the party itself, because it's freaking stupid.

Move to adjourn

Finally (golf clap), I'm not guaranteeing that if you get involved, you will affect momentous change. You can. You might be shot down. You might be missing a salient point about an issue. 

What I am guaranteeing is if you stay quiet, elected leaders will hear every bit of your silence and decide it's license to proceed.

Which brings us to the final item on every agenda. So allow me to close. All those in favor? ... mumble mumble ... opposed? Hearing none, motion carries.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years, and as a communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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Fighting 'City Hall' (in the generic sense) involves at least showing up.

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