You may not have considered attending your town council meetings until a project or problem near you affected your life in the community. Suddenly you’re on a crash course to learn how decisions are made that affect your quality of life, your taxes, or both. Here’s what you should know about city or town council meetings.
Your town council’s responsibilities
Your city or town council makes decisions that affect your everyday life where you live. Its actions affect such matters as street construction and maintenance, trash pickup, water and sewer infrastructure, health codes and zoning restrictions, and police and fire department presence. It proposes, discusses and votes for or against local laws, regulations and budgets.
As we all learned in school, in representative democracies such as the United States, the people elect representatives to govern on their behalf at the local, state and federal level. City council representatives are elected for each of the districts mapped out by a city. Begin your involvement with your town council by learning which council member represents the district in which you live.
City councils generally meet at least once per month, usually more often. Each state has open meetings laws that require these meetings, and any documents they generate, to be open to the public. There are rare exceptions to open meetings laws that allow closed-door sessions to discuss such matters as litigation or certain personnel issues. The city must publish minutes of the previous meeting, proposed and enacted resolutions, and budgets for the public to read.
What happens at meetings
Attending town council meetings keeps you in the know and gives you a voice in decisions.
- The council’s meeting dates are a matter of public record. You will find the calendar on the city’s website and posted in public places such as the local library. The agenda of items to be discussed and voted on will usually be posted too. A certain minimum number of council members, known as a quorum, must be present for the council to conduct business.
- Meetings begin with the review and approval of the previous meeting’s minutes. The council will discuss old business discussed in previous meetings first, then new business items. The council may hear from advisory committees it commissioned to study proposed projects. These committees provide research on the costs and feasibility of actions the council is considering, such as construction projects, crime control measures or projects to alleviate homelessness.
- In most municipalities, before a final vote can be taken to approve any major initiative, the town council must allow for a period of public input. This input can come from citizens who speak to the council at its meetings or who write council members. This is your opportunity to voice your support for or concern about council plans and proposed laws and initiatives. If you want to make your voice heard, be sure to have done your homework beforehand. Come armed with facts, not speculation or emotional arguments. Preparation is key.
- After the council votes to adopt a new city law, there is usually a waiting period before the law goes into effect, such as 30 days.
Once you immerse yourself as a citizen in the workings of your city government, who knows? One day you may decide to serve your community by running for the council yourself.