December 2003 Contents
Message From the Executive Director:
Upstate Forever News:
How to Get Involved With Local Government
By Brad Wyche
Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst system devised by the wit of man except for all the others.” It’s better than the rest because it gives every citizen the right to participate and to be heard. That means it’s up to us. Democracy will not work well unless we citizens get involved, speak up and exercise our rights.
I am pleased to offer my “Top Ten Tips” on how to do that with local government in the Upstate. While the focus is on the local level, these tips are also applicable to the state and federal governments.
1. Identify Your Representatives.
The first step, of course, is to identify your local representatives. Because of the way local government is structured in the Upstate (and the rest of the State), you actually have several local representatives. You will have at least one representative on the County Council. If you live in a municipality, you will also have one or more representatives on that city’s elected council. You will also have a representative on your School District Board. While you’re at it, you should also find out the names of the Commissioners or Board members of the utilities and agencies that provide you with your services, such as water, sewer, and police and fire protection.
I promise, it won’t be that hard to obtain this information. You can use the Internet (many of the local governments and agencies have websites), or just pick up the phone and call the office. Ask them to send you a list of all the members of the council or board, including their contact information (mailing address, phone numbers and e-mail address). When the list arrives, you can underline your representatives. Put all of the information you have obtained into your own personal “Political Action Handbook.”
Now you need to use the handbook and let your local representatives hear from you. Phone calls and e-mails are efficient and convenient, but phone calls can be forgotten or misunderstood, and e-mails can be deleted with one push of the button. I think letters continue to be the most powerful and effective method of communication. A letter has a much better chance of being read, and it will become part of the public record.
Here’s another tip about letters –don’t hesitate to send copies to the other members of the council or board. For example, if you have decided to write your representative on County Council about a particular issue, go ahead and send a copy of it to all of the other members. If in doubt, send a copy. It can’t hurt.
3. Be Prepared.
If you are concerned about a particular issue, do your homework first. For example, assume there’s a dangerous intersection on a local road near your home that you want to have improved. You should take pictures of it, find out how many accidents have happened there in the last two or three years, and maybe even design your own plan for correcting it. If you are armed with the facts, you will have a much better chance of achieving your goal.
4. Build A Coalition.
Nowhere is “strength in numbers” more important than in our political system. You will have a much better chance of getting that intersection fixed if almost everyone in your subdivision is supporting you. Elected officials are experts in counting votes. Also, the Internet is a wonderful way of building support for your cause and communicating with the group. You can even create your own website.
In a democracy, the pace of decision-making can be painfully slow. The process can involve studies, more studies, public meetings, public hearings, committee meetings, and first, second and third readings. For example, in Greenville County, Upstate Forever worked with other groups and citizens in advocating for the passage of a county landscaping ordinance for commercial parking lots. The ordinance was considered at 16 separate meetings of the County Planning Commission, the County Council, and a committee of County Council over a period of almost three years before it was finally approved. Often you will have to “hang in there” for a long time to achieve your goal. Even if you are not ultimately successful, it’s still a worthwhile experience because you now know your representatives and you have seen how the system works. This will prove invaluable to you when another issue arises or you decide to try again.
Local governments are always looking for citizens to serve on boards, commissions, committees, and task forces. For example, your County Council appoints all of the members of several local boards and commissions with significant responsibilities. Find out where the vacancies are and if they interest you, ask to serve.
7. Use The Freedom of Information Act.
There’s a powerful state law on the books called the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and this can be your key to the doors of government. FOIA’s basic purpose is to ensure that the business of government is done out in the open. It requires public notice of all meetings of government bodies, gives the public the right to attend those meetings, and makes government documents and records available for review. Find out when the meetings are and start attending some of them. You will learn a lot.
You can also file an “FOIA request” and obtain all of the documents relating to a particular project or issue. There are some exemptions, but the burden is on the government to justify them. FOIA is easy to use. Send a letter (certified is best) and simply say: “Pursuant to the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act, I hereby request all documents, written materials and communications of any nature (including e-mail messages) relating in any way to [describe the issue or project you are concerned about].” The government has to respond in 15 days. They can charge you for reviewing and copying the documents, but you also have the right to go to their office and review the materials and decide then what you want to copy. I am astonished at how rarely citizens exercise their rights under FOIA. It can provide a wonderful window into the world of government decision-making. Use it!
8. Contact the Media.
The media (newspapers, TV and radio) are always looking for a good story. Your political action handbook should also contain a list of all media contacts – newspapers that serve your community, the network and cable channels, local radio stations, etc. Let them know what you’re doing and trying to accomplish. They may do a story about that intersection you are trying to change. There’s nothing like free advertising!
9. Be Respectful.
I don’t think tactics such as name-calling, jeering, and interrupting other speakers have any place in the political process. You will have a much better chance of achieving your goal by being considerate and respectful of officials and other citizens, even those who oppose your position. You should never hesitate to engage in a fair and vigorous debate, but don’t marginalize yourself or your cause by abusing the rights of others.
This, of course, is the cornerstone of democracy. You have no right to complain about anything if you don’t vote, and with absentee ballots and mail-in voting for seniors, there’s rarely a good excuse for not voting.
So get involved, have fun, and make a difference!
article is adapted from a guest editorial written