The Valdez Star - Serving Prince William Sound and Copper River Basin

Valdez Star 

How to successfully make your voice heard for change in local government

The process a citizen uses - and how it is presented - can determine success or failure


September 5, 2018

The Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, "If liberty and equality, as is thought by some are chiefly to be found in Democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the Government to the utmost."

One way to improve liberty and equality for all is to seek ways to improve your community when you feel that change is necessary. This is the partial scoop on how to do just that, improve your community through enacting the change you wish to see.

One way to bring about change is by working with city council.

Sheri Pierce is the Valdez City Clerk – and she works directly for city council.

She gave us the inside information during an interview at her office in city hall.

Pierce recommends that citizens should contact her ahead of time to find out if council is empowered to act on the issue.

For instance, a person might find their complaint about a guardrail is not under the city's jurisdiction, but is under the control of Alaska Dept. of Transportation.

However, even if the governing board or council cannot act on the issue - you may still wish to publicly speak to them to make a point known.

For example, an individual may choose to publicly speak to the school board against mandatory testing even though the board would not be able to overturn Federal testing requirements.

When publicly speaking during school board meetings, it is important to know that their agendas state, "NO DISCUSSION OF PERSONNEL -NO EXCEPTION."

The legality of this policy is unclear, as courts in both Virginia and Illinois have found policies such as this unconstitutional according to a Student Press Law Center report from February of 2017.

City Council does not state that personnel cannot be discussed, but it has been established that city council does not have disciplinary power over city employees – that is the responsibility of the city manager.

Nick Licata, author of the book "Becoming a Citizen Activist," recommends that when making public comment, that telling the story is the crucial component. How does the issue affect you and, more importantly, the larger community? When preparing, Licata recommends that you have documented your issue impeccably and provide laws and evidence rather than opinions.

To maximize the chance for a positive outcome, it is also recommended by Licata to be as specific as possible about what you want and provide alternatives to items you disagree with. Being concise will also help as it allows time for questions from elected officials which can start a discussion on your issue rather than simply hearing, "we will look into it."

Since city council and school board meetings are business meetings and not public forums, Frank Goodnow, author of the book "Municipal Government" suggests that you get yourself on the agenda when feasible.

To get on the agenda for the city council, you would either need the support of two members of council or the mayor according to the operating procedures of city council.

To get on the agenda for the school board is somewhat similar.

Joe Prax, president of the board of education and a former city council member, explained how to get on the school board agenda.

"As school board president, agenda items get approved by me to be on the agenda," he said in an email.

Prax added that if wanting to be on the agenda, one needs to contact either himself or the superintendent.

Prax referenced School Board By-Law 9322 which states that members of the public wishing to be on the school board agenda contact the superintendent a minimum of ten working days before the meeting and provide supporting documents and information, if any exists. Not following this procedure will result in a good faith request being denied.

Although the school board agenda is finalized by the board president and superintendent, an individual can also get an issue on the school board agenda, according to BB 9322, by having two members of the school board approve it for the agenda. Because of this, the board president and superintendent can decline the request but it can be overridden by other members of the board.

The advantage of being on the agenda at a school board or city council meeting is that action can be taken whereas with public comment on non-agenda items, no official action can be taken.

Pierce described this in great depth.

"Anyone can come to the podium and speak to the council but the council cannot take action," she said. "Anything the council is going to take action on, we have to provide notice to the public in advance."

This means, the governing body can direct the administrators to begin addressing a problem, but they cannot enact a new law or policy on the spot.

If a citizen would like to see a law enacted or repealed, and working through elected officials was not successful, there is another avenue to pursue according to Pierce.

"Citizens have a right to initiate or repeal ordinances" at the ballot box, she said.

To go through this process, the first step would be to contact Pierce. As city clerk, she would then determine whether the initiative meets the qualifications to become a law.

"If it meets all of the requirements, then the person has to get ten sponsors who are registered voters," she said.

After review to ensure the sponsors are qualified, petitions are issued through the clerk's office. If the petition receives 25 percent of the number of voters in the most recent municipal election, then the initiative is put up to the people for a vote.

Regular city council meetings are at 7 p.m. in City Council Chambers on the first and third Tuesday of each month. The current calendar for all regular public city meetings is available through December of 2018. The next meeting is on September 18.

School board meetings are also in City Council Chambers and are at 6:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Monday of each month.

The next school board meeting is scheduled for September 10.


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