How to Fight City Hall (and Increase Your Chances of Winning)

by braniac, studioD

Do you have concerns about how your city is being run, or a particular decision the city is making? Are you becoming the community organizer your neighborhood needs? Are your neighbors saying you can't fight city hall? First and foremost, believe this: The only way to guarantee failure is to do nothing.

When you identify a problem, start looking into it promptly. Most city issues have a deadline for public comment, and effective public comment takes time to put together.

Contact City Hall and ask to become a "party of record" for your issue. This means you'll be informed of public hearings -- and if you're not, there's been a lack of due process, which gives you a means to appeal the City's decision.

Start asking questions, of the City, the landowner, the developer, the applicant. You might find out that your concerns are going to be addressed; on the other hand, you might find that certain parties are not trustworthy. In either case, you're gathering valuable information. Take note: This step is "ask questions," not "have conversations". Until you can assess the issues and the parties, you're better off if all the information flows in and none flows out. For the moment, don't reveal your own wishes or the information you possess.

Once you have a feel for the issue and the other parties involved, talk with a few of the wisest people in your neighborhood to decide on an approach. If the neighborhood is okay with a project moving forward as long as your concerns are addressed it's more likely to be worthwhile to negotiate with the other side. If you don't want a project to move forward under any circumstances, or if you think the outcome will be better using the City as a mediator than if you try to negotiate directly with the other side, don't divulge information to your opponents until the formal hearing.

Identify neighbors who have the most time and expertise to volunteer, and start meeting regularly. It's important to form a cohesive organization in which all your key players what the organization wants, and work out a project schedule with all the tasks covered.

Start developing a large, strong, rapid-response network of neighbors. The goals are to develop a contact list, inform neighbors of your concerns, recruit experts, and line up volunteers to participate when numbers are important: at city meetings and hearings, and in phone and e-mail campaigns.

Start your research as soon as possible. What laws and ordinances apply to your issue? What are the technical facts in this particular situation? To be the most effective, your arguments must tie technical facts to local ordinances. Ideally, they're presented by people with credentials in the specific technical areas, but use what you've got. In our case, the winning arguments have taken the form, "Our opponent has requested such-and-such. For you to grant this request, his application has to satisfy conditions A, B, and C as required by section Y of the city code. His application does not satisfy those conditions because of the following facts...."

Decide on your organization's public face. Calm and professional? Highly data-driven? Emotional appeals? Massive numbers? Mad as heck and not going to take it any more? There's likely to be a good opportunity to use all these approaches at one time or another; as a group it's helpful to know what approaches different people are good at, and have a basic game plan of when to use each. Just remember: City staff and elected officials are people, too. Get to know them and get to know the considerations that will weigh most heavily in their decision, and make it easy for them to say "yes" to you.

Develop means of disseminating news to the whole neighborhood. E-mail, door-to-door flyers, doorbelling, signs, and a neighborhood Web site are all effective. The higher the stakes and the higher the numbers of participants needed, the more important it is to make sure you reach a large percentage of your neighbors, so groups I've been involved with have used all these approaches in the days before our hearings.

Write letters to the local newspaper. Here in Washington State, we're constrained by state law, the "Appearance of Fairness doctrine," from addressing city officials on particular applications except at the hearings for those applications. But letters to the editor aren't addressed to the City Council, they're addressed to the everyone -- the City Council just happens to read them. There's also an exception for candidates -- when a sitting Council member is running for office, you can ask them where they stand as a candidate on a particular issue, and tell them where you want them to stand.

Decide as early as possible whether you're going to need a lawyer. The earlier you decide, the more leg-work you can do gathering material the lawyer needs, so the cheaper your legal bill.

Don't forget about the Freedom of Information Act. This is going to be one of your most valuable tools for getting the documentation you need to press your case.

Mobilize everyone you possibly can to attend hearings. Numbers of bodies -- and staying for the entire hearing -- make a tremendous impact. If people are comfortable speaking, that's great, but just their respectful presence speaks volumes.

Consider having a questionnaire ready to hand out as people enter the hearing chamber. They can fill it out and submit it without taking up hearing time (and it's more comfortable for people who would rather not speak publicly). We found it effective to include both requests for opinions and requests for information on the questionnaire: in our land use issue, we asked about slope stability, drainage problems, endangered species, and so on, to give the City an idea of the environmental data that supported the outcome wanted. Citizens submitted the questionnaire to the City Clerk, before the hearing ended, so it became part of the official record.

Compile a notebook that includes the information you want the commission or Council to consider in this decision. Submit it at the hearing and not before -- if you turn it in too early, your opponents can look it over and develop counter-arguments. It's important that you create a copy of the notebook for each member of the commission, each member of the City Council if they are part of the process, and another copy for the official hearing record. When one of the groups I've worked with only turned in one copy, the city made black-and-white photocopies and distributed them bound in a rubber band to the City Council -- no color, no tabs ... really hard for the City Council to use. Don't forget to make extra copies NOW for the entire appeals process. One of my groups has gone through a Hearing Examiner, City Council, Superior Court, is now in Appeals Court, and has the State Supreme Court still to go -- and every level needs their own set of documents for their permanent record. You don't want your chances at the state level to be diminished just because you didn't take the time to make an extra set of binders. And if you don't have everything in the notebook in electronic format, well archived, it's really hard to reconstruct later.

In the notebook, include specifically worded motions for the commission or Council to use. These motions should cover the outcome you want the group to pass. For example, if you are concerned about the safety of a street, the wording might be something like, "I move that the City's codes include a provision that 151st Way cannot be extended beyond the point where it currently ends." When the decision on one of my group's issues was being debated, the commission was sympathetic to this idea but didn't want to spend time word-smithing a motion, so the decision wasn't quite as strongly in our favor as it might have been.

Realize that the hearing time may be extremely limited. For one hearing, my group had a total of 20 minutes to make our entire case. To prepare for that 20 minutes we whittled down our information to what was most critical, whittled down our list of speakers to the most qualified and articulate, and rehearsed over and over again to drill down to the most vital and compelling 20 minutes' worth of information. We also prepared our entire neighborhood to expect a short speaking time -- warning them that every minute on our side had to be matched with a minute on the opponent's side.

Continue attending City meetings between the hearing and the decision. If the meeting agenda includes your issue, be prepared to stay for the entire meeting; if you just want to remind them that you're out there, you can just stay for public comments at the beginning of the meeting. In our case, we sometimes sat quietly, and at other times spoke in abstract terms about the content of existing ordinances. Because our Planning Commission and Council knew who we were, they were able to apply what we were saying to the issue we were concerned about, without our overstepping by naming the issue explicitly.

Realize that your issue may take years to resolve. You may have to be involved long-term.

If you hire an attorney, and the more courts your issue goes through, the more your group's focus will shift from developing technical arguments to raising money to pay legal fees. In our case, the technical record closed at the end of the first hearing. All the work since then has been to develop and deliver legal arguments for each successive court.

Be prepared to work toward what one neighbor calls a "strategic" solution -- replacing the current City Council at the next election if you come to the conclusion that the current Council is seriously out of touch with citizens. But realize there can be a ripple effect from this decision: A big upheaval in the elected Council can result in a loss of City staff who are loyal to the displaced Councilmembers. This might be a good outcome, and maybe not, but it's the kind of consequence that may occur.

Items you will need

  • Courage
  • Persistence
  • Willingness to persuade neighbors, City staff, and City Council members
  • Time to do research and assemble documentation
  • "Political will" in the form of numbers of citizens
  • Specialty skills are a big plus: attorneys, traffic engineers, geologists, etc.

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