Citizens often feel frustrated at the City Council's lack of response to the ideas and concerns they express during public forum. The councilors aren't really disinterested, but because public meeting laws require all decision-making by the council to take place in public during two study sessions and two business meeting per month, they are focused on an already full schedule of demanding decisions that by law only they can decide.
On the other hand, they are usually very accommodating about meeting with citizens outside of their four monthly work sessions. Therefore:
- Try bringing your ideas or concerns to an individual councilor and see what response you get. You're looking for interest, understanding, good questions, etc. Seek to find common ground and build rapport from the start and, if you are not satisfied, move on to another member of the council. The intention is to create relationships of trust and integrity between a growing number of people who get involved.
- Assuming you find a sympathetic councilor, she/he may want to have city staff do some research to identify how your idea could be implemented and what obstacles may exist. (All the members of this council have outside jobs or businesses and must carefully allocate their time. Also staff have a much better grasp of the details of city operations.) This can lead to follow-up meetings with you during which your idea may be modified to make it more feasible for implementation.
- At some point you and your "sponsoring" councilor may decide to move your joint initiative to a study session. This starts to bring the whole council into your process.
- With a study session date established you and your councilor work with city staff to prepare the presentation to be understandable to the entire council plus key individuals such as the city administrator and city attorney.
- You also may speak with additional councilors to set the stage for them so they don't encounter your idea cold in their packet for the study session. These conversations are also opportunities to surface questions and concerns to address in your presentation.
- Ideally, the study session will generate a thoughtful conversation among the council, staff and you about your idea.
- At the end of this conversation the council can direct staff to develop more information, to make it an action item on a council business meeting agenda, or to send it to one or more of our 11 commissions (with 84 appointed citizen members) for their recommendations, or to set up an ad hoc committee to transform the idea into a practical solution that is workable and affordable within the structure of city government.
- There may not be support by a majority of councilors for what you want to do, but you may still think it's a good idea. The council may feel the timing isn't right, or that city funds may not be available, or that it should be handled by some other entity in the community. The council may also not think the idea is in the best interests of the community as a whole even though it benefits the needs and desires of one constituency.
This is different from an advocacy and activist approach in which you build a constituency of citizens and demand action from the council. You can even circulate petitions to refer your idea to a vote of the people and, ultimately, you can run candidates for council who will champion your idea. All of which is fine, fair, legal and perhaps necessary if the council simply doesn't grasp the significance of your initiative.
However, the initiative will still have to be implemented by city government and still have to be dealt with by some council sometime, somewhere — and that may bring you back to a variant of the process I've described above. So it may be worthwhile to try that approach first.
If at any point in whatever path you take you want to discuss it with me, I'll be happy to help you. Call 541-552-2100 for an appointment.
— John Stromberg is mayor of Ashland. This column was suggested by Mira Sophia and Bob Morse of the Culture of Peace Commission.