Originally posted 9/11/2015
In March 2015, Citizen Physicians hosted Emily Flower, a volunteer with Generation Citizen to teach a workshop about civic engagement to the medical students of Alpert Medical School. After laying down some foundational civic knowledge, she went on to point out some of the tools that are available to us as citizens and explained several strategies for how to effectively communicate with and engage members of the local government.
Civics and Bureaucracy 101
In order to engage or affect change in the government, we first have to know how it functions. The two main branches that are pervious to our influence are the executive branch (i.e. mayor, governor) and the legislative branch (i.e. city council, state legislature). The third, the judicial branch, is not accessible to us.
The executive branch executes/ enforces the law; it proposes yearly budgets, runs departments, and spends money (city: mayor, state: governor, federal: president).
The legislative branch creates the law; it approves budgets, creates departments, and makes multi-year changes (city: city council, state: state legislature, federal: congress).
States governments are responsible for social services such as healthcare, education, and transportation. They are responsible for annual matters, like taxes and elections. Conversely, city governments are responsible for daily life and local services such as trash pickup, utilities, safety/fire, and road maintenance. Here, we use Providence as an example to examine the structure of local government. The following is a slide from Emily's presentation.
City Council and the creation of city laws
In Providence, there are 15 city councilors representing the 15 wards/neighborhoods that compose the City Council. Their job is to create laws. Here's how they do it.
An ordinance is sponsored by at least 1 councilor
The ordinance is proposed to Council
The ordinance is referred to a 5-councilor committee*
Once the ordinance passes committee, the ordinance is put to a vote, where 8 out of 15 votes are required to pass
The mayor must then sign the ordinance into law. If he does not sign and thus vetoes, it is returned to Council, where 10 votes can override the mayor's veto and pass it into law.
*If the resolution/ordinance is not passed out of committee by the last day of the legislative session (in July), it will "die" in committee.
This is essentially how laws are created at the state level as well. In the RI General Assembly (House+Senate), there are 75 representatives in the lower House of Representatives and 39 senators in the upper Senate. 38 votes are required to pass a bill, and 50 votes are required to override a veto from the governor.
Let's dig in. How do I interact with my local government?
For one-time issues in your city. For issues such as potholes, streetlights, neighborhood noise, missed trash days, there is an online system called ProvConnex to provide direct feedback from the city's homepage. There's also an iPhone/Android app to submit issues as well. I suggest going to the website and clicking around to see what they have to offer there. If you don't do it now, you probably never will! For an example, here are a couple of slides from Emily's slideshow that pointed out how to navigate from the homepage to request a pothole be filled.
For ongoing issues at the city level. Where an ordinance or resolution might be required to address your issue, it's time to work with the City Council. Before you begin, you should research your topic for relevant ordinances by searching the city's municipal code. The code is kept at the City Clerk office's website. I provided the link directly to the municipal code, but the City Clerk's office is responsible for keeping all official documents, calendars, keeping track of who is on which committee and when the meetings are, so their website is a good resource. Next, you can contact your councilperson about your issue. Councilors will be much, much more likely to listen to you and work for you if you are someone who can vote for them. To find out who your councilperson is, visit the City Council's website. You can call (401-521-7477) and email the Council's office to speak with researchers and staff. To email the entire city council, email email@example.com. Follow up every 2 days via email and phone until you hear a response. City Council meetings are held on the evenings of the 1st and 3rd Thursdays of each month except during summer recess.
Thanks again to Generation Citizen and Emily Flower. In a following post, we will discuss how to open the door to interacting with your state government. Stay tuned!
James Tanch, a medical student at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University and the Director of Technology and Blog Editor for Citizen Physicians