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True Confessions of a Local Government Newbie

beth-circle-head Beth Heller

When I joined the team at Live54218, my less-than-ironclad grip on the workings of local government was exposed pretty quickly.  I watched, impressed, as colleagues dashed off to voice their views at public hearings, and rally troops to attend county board meetings about plowing the Fox River Trail.  I listened, admiringly, as they chatted about the different alderpersons, trustees, boards and councils in Greater Green Bay area.

More than anything, through Live54218, I started to truly see the impact citizens can have on the choices that shape their lives.  Beyond that, I saw the power of “showing up” in action. It really is up to all of us to pay attention, voice our opinions, and make sure the folks we elect are doing what they promised.  

Duh. I know.  

True confession time.  Somehow, I have managed to grow up, graduate from college, start a career, get married and raise a family without ever truly engaging with local government.  I vote in state and national elections, read news sites, and listen to multiple podcasts and radio shows in an effort to stay informed on social and political issues…but alderpersons and trustees skimmed under my radar.  I’m not proud of this, but I also have a sneaking suspicion that I’m not alone.

So, for those of you out there like me, who somehow “missed the memo” on city government, here’s a little “101” info.  According to The National League of Cities, here are some general stats about city councils in the United States:  

  • Councils can range in size from 5 to 51 across the nation, although the national average is six members.
  • Two thirds of survey respondents report they elect council members “at large” rather than by district.
  • Once elected, 65% report council members serve four year terms.
  • Council members go by different names, which can include: alderperson, trustee and councilman/woman among others.
  • These groups of elected officials determine how our local communities function and are stewards of the wishes of the people that elect them.  The scope of work depends on the city charter, and may include reviewing and approving the annual budget, establish long- and short-term objectives and priorities for the city, passing ordinances, regulating public health and safety and much more.

Now here’s the best part.  Council meetings are open to the public, and it’s pretty easy to get into the groove of tracking what’s on the docket.  Most councils use some form of two documents – an “agenda” (which shows the topics that will be discussed) and a “packet” (which includes background information) are available to the public.  While these packets can seem dense, they become easier as you get into the habit of giving them a skim and they will definitely change the way you think about the streets, neighborhoods, stores and parks in your community.  

As part of The GROW Project, we’ll be encouraging individuals in our community to get more civically engaged in the decisions that impact their health and well-being, as well as those that they are most passionate about.

Never seen a city council meeting?  Watch one from Green Bay here.

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