Can I really change my local government? Maybe.
December 12, 2005 2:25 PM   Subscribe

How does one go about having a city municipal code changed? My city council is the city’s legislative authority and sets the policies under which the city operates. I'm looking to convince our city government to change our beach curfew from 10:00pm to midnight. I have never tried to petition the government for anything. So I have no idea where to begin. I'm looking for the basics here. How do I bring my case to the city council? What would the process be? What formalities/legalities are involved, etc? I will appreciate any insight into this. I would also like any advice on how to research my case for the change. Any insight is great! I look forward to your answers!
posted by ieatwords to Law & Government (13 answers total)
I assume you're in the U.S. and in a city that isn't massive in size (New York/L.A./Chicago) I used to work for a municipality in Florida and am familiar with dozens of similar municipalities. At almost every open (non-special) city council/commission meeting there is an open period where residents can talk about anything that they want. It's usually first or second on the Agenda. Generally, there is a sign-in sheet so they have a record of you speaking or so they can consolidate a group of 50 residents all wanting to address one issue. Look up your city's website, find the next meeting, and just show up. You may need a photo I.D. or some proof that you are, in fact, a resident, but elected officials do like to hear about these matters. Good luck.
posted by stevis at 2:36 PM on December 12, 2005

Start going to meetings. The people that actually get stuff done in government aren't the people who come in off the street and make a demand for something, they're the people that know other people. Become a common face, get to know some of the council members, and float the idea to them and ask what they think. Their objections and thoughts and suggestions will guide you.

Good luck!
posted by SpecialK at 2:38 PM on December 12, 2005

Good luck with this Ieatwords. I don't know where you live, but in general, there's two types of city government: In one, the mayor runs the show and is a paid administrator, in the other, a professional city manager runs the city and the mayor is a figurehead. I've reported on cities of both varieties. In the city manager setup, I found the best way to get something done was to make an appointment with the city manager or his or her assistant. In the mayoral form of government, you can either try to get a meeting with the mayor (but it probably won't happen because they're a paid administrator AND they have the ego of an elected official) or you can go through your list of city councilors and find the ones that represent your ward. There should be one or two that specifically represent the area you live or where the beaches are.

The best way to get something done is to know someone. So, call up an alderman/councilor, have coffee with them and explain what you want. If they like the idea, they can bring it up in a committee meeting, which will then decide whether to bring the ordinance to the full council for review. You might want to check with your city attorney or assistant city attorney to figure out how an ordinance is crafted in your city.

There's one more approach: Round up 50 people who feel the same way you do and arrive before the start of the meeting. Ask to speak during the public forum: This is usually at the end of the agenda or at the beginning of the meeting, right after the pledge of allegiance. Figure out what you're going to say in 3 minutes or less as many municipalities have a time limit, and perhaps make up a one-page printout you can distribute to the council and mayor.

Hope this helps, sorry for the wordiness :-)
posted by Happydaz at 2:47 PM on December 12, 2005

If your city has councilmembers that are elected by district (many, if not most, cities don't use districts), then simply talking to the person representing your district might well be the best approach. Tell him/her what you're interested in, and ask him/her for suggestions.

Backing up a step: the process for changing city municipal code is via an ordinance passed by the city council. Generally only a city councilmember can submit an ordinance for consideration by the council. Typically the council has administrative staff who actually draw up the ordinance; the interested councilmember would simply tell such a person what the ordinance is intended to do (in the case of a simple change such as this.)

The suggestion by stevis is, unfortunately, unlikely to work: if you show up, by yourself, and speak for three minutes about a change you want to make, the councilfolks are likely to thank you for your intelligent and interesting comments, and then proceed to discuss things that they think are important and/or will get them reelected (often the same thing).

So how do you interest the council in changing? Among the most important things is to frame the issue in ways that matter to them - for example, that a lot of people want the change (and potentially would vote them out of office if ignored), or that the change will have economic benefits to the city (which the councilmembers both want and can use to get themselves reelected).

So: a group almost always is better than an individual. (Show up with at least ten people at a council meeting, and I guarantee you'll be noticed.) And, on the flip side, if you can't get other folks interested, then that tells you something.

Often a temporary group is sufficient ("Friends of the Beach"), but if there are any local organizations that are relevant (a neighborhood group? a surfing club?), approach them. Also, think about who would benefit - local restaurant or bar owners? (Talk to them.)

While much of what SpecialK suggests make sense, I'm not sure that being a in-group guy is worth all the time and effort for what is a limited interest on your part.

There are also other options, which can be done alone or as part of a larger approach:

* A letter to the local paper(s), or, better yet, a guest editorial (it helps to be "President of Friends of the Beach"). But don't do this without giving councilmembers a chance to act first.

* An informal petition.

* A website (for which, of course, you need publicity - like newspaper attention, or posting info on telephone polls).

* If all else fails, and your city allows (most don't), an initiative that gets the issue onto the ballot (essentially, a voter-approved ordinance). (Takes a lot of effort.)

On preview: what Happydaz says, too.
posted by WestCoaster at 2:57 PM on December 12, 2005

What Happydaz said. And good luck.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 2:58 PM on December 12, 2005

I'd definitely start by meeting with a councilmember, either for your district, or just one who you think might be sympathetic. If you're in a big city, you might have a hard time getting a meeting directly with the councilmember and it might be just as helpful to meet with the staff.

They could help you get started. Some questions to ask:
1. What is the history of the curfew? Why is it 10pm to begin with? Was there an organized constituency pushing for 10pm?
2. Who (both on the Council, in the Mayor's office and in the community), do they think would support or oppose this project?
3. You might want to look at stats to build your case. As the police for stats about crime at the beach etc. You could argue that it is unnecessary since there is low crime anyway. Often a councilmember can help you get access to information from the city or can get slow-moving bureaucracies moving.
posted by krudiger at 3:34 PM on December 12, 2005

krudiger's point 1 is key before going any further. The 10:00pm curfew could be the result of a compromise. Even if the curfew was enacted 50 years ago there could still be some busybody around with the mayor's ear who thinks it should be 8:00pm and will push for it to be lowered if changing the curfew is brought up.
posted by Mitheral at 4:46 PM on December 12, 2005

This is great information right here:

At almost every open (non-special) city council/commission meeting there is an open period where residents can talk about anything that they want.

Moreover, almost every city council has a "city clerk" position who is often available to field generalized questions from the citizens of the city. You could ask this person exactly how you would go about formally petitioning the council.
posted by frogan at 5:25 PM on December 12, 2005

Hire a lobbyist. You will get heard. Contact a local law firm to start and they will know what to do. It will save you a lot of headache and things will go much smoother. It will cost you, but if you are in a smaller city, it won't be too much. Most people don't realize that there are lobbyists in most cities of decent size, and that a good attorney can serve as a lobbyist any time. Go to the state capital if you can't find anyone in your town. This will work, I assure you.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:25 PM on December 12, 2005

Don't forget your chief of police. The curfew is enforced by his people and probably exists for their convenience. If you can bring him around to your way of thinking - and get him to admit as much, or at least not gainsay you, in public - you've won.

If, however, he presents you with a list of objections against your proposal, you then have as much time as you like to develop effective rebuttals to his arguments before presenting your case to the decision-makers.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:08 PM on December 12, 2005

First you need to find out why the curfew is the way it is. Who wanted it that way and why? I would think some of your neighbors would know, or anyone you can find with a knowledge of the city - a newpaper reporter of long standing might know.

Once you find out, it may be that the people who wanted it that way are gone, or that your neighbors are all puzzled by it, too and side with you. Or you may find that it's been fought over for years and all your neighbors like the status quo. Or whatever.

In any case, you really have to talk to people, esp. your neighbors, your council person, any politician really who will talk to you. You'll find allies (and enemies) and you'll see if anything can be done. Unless you are a big campaign donor, just acting by yourself will likely get you nowhere.

If you find you have lots of allies, a petition may indeed be effective.
posted by richg at 11:15 PM on December 12, 2005

Hire a lobbyist. ... Eh, I wouldn't do that. You probably aren't looking to spend any money doing this (apart from printing up some flyers at Kinko's). And beyond that, you shouldn't have to spend money to introduce your point to the city council. This whole exercise is one of civic engagement. You should know how your local government operates. Paying somebody to do it for you misses the point on many levels.
posted by Alt F4 at 3:24 AM on December 13, 2005

As a quick follow up: I know that some would interpret "this whole exercise" as one of getting an ordinance changed (rather than "civic engagement," as I said just above this). But seeing as how he isn't trying to change federal law, but rather a local curfew, he shouldn't have to resort to hiring a lawyer.

I'd also like to point out that the "hire a lawyer" bit came from a lawyer.
posted by Alt F4 at 3:34 AM on December 13, 2005

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