Has your homeowners association faced any of the following?
- A landslide caused by city property;
- Unpopular land use restrictions;
- Intrusive neighborhood development;
- Vehicles speeding through residential streets; or
- Abandoned vehicles on association property.
Your local government manages these situations: problems involving public works, land use, traffic, or public nuisances. Government officials (usually your city council) can change policies to benefit or harm your community. Fortunately, all of these officials have one thing in common: you elect them.
The Good News
As an association, you have a great ability to influence local policies and decisions. You are among a group of voters who can potentially decide the political future of your elected officials! They are keenly aware of your power and very likely to respond to 50 or 100 local constituents speaking together, united around a particular issue. Mobile home associations are an excellent example. They have united locally in a number of cities to lobby for adoption of rent control ordinances. They have also mobilized statewide to address related issues of common interest to their members.
Effectively Unleashing the Power
You may have heard the saying: “It is more important to be effective than to be right.” You must take care to communicate effectively with elected officials. If you or your members are written off as ‘gadflies’ or malcontents, you may struggle to regain your group’s credibility.
The information in this article provides an outline, not a road map, of how to unleash your community’s power to influence local policies and decisions. The precise road map you follow will depend on the nature of your issue, the process involved and the predisposition of the staff and city council.
Make Sure Your Issue Is Within the City's Jurisdiction
Nothing is more embarrassing than appearing before city council, during ‘public comment’ for example, armed to the teeth with petitions, outlines, exhibits and half the neighborhood, only to find your issue is not within the city’s jurisdiction. It happens! Before you start, find out if your problem belongs a school, state, county, special district, or city. Do not assume every local issue is a city issue.
Learn How the Local Agency Conducts Business
The next step is to learn how the local agency conducts business. You’ll need to do the following:
- Talk to the right person.
- Get your item on the agenda.
- Learn which policies and political concerns are connected to your issue.
Talk to the Right Person
The “right person” depends on your issue. Generally speaking, city staff prefers that you bring all issues to them first, not to city council. This may be a good idea because staff may be able to resolve your issue quickly.
As a rule of thumb, you should begin with the responsible department head. If more than one department is involved, begin with the city manager. In the ‘council-manager’ form of government, the city manager reports to city council, and the department heads report to the city manager.
Remember that most city staffers are dedicated civil servants doing thankless jobs for critical citizens. Convince staff members that you understand the pressures they face, and you will have a better chance of accomplishing your goal. I have observed with amazement the change in attitude when I reveal to city staff that I was an in-house city attorney for eighteen years. All of sudden they are dealing with someone who understands, and the question becomes how we can solve the client’s problem, not how staff can get it off their desks. But your problem cannot be solved by city staff, your item may need to be added to the agenda.
Getting On the Agenda
You can usually get your item on the agenda (or “agendized”) in two ways. Under the Ralph M. Brown Act, local governments must set a time at each meeting for people to comment on any item within the city’s jurisdiction. This method may be a good way to bring a time-sensitive matter to city council’s immediate attention. However, the Brown Act also says that no action can be taken on matters raised for the first time during public comment. If your issue isn’t already on the agenda, the matter will have to be agendized again. Council members and staff dislike hearing about problems for the first time during public comment; nobody likes to be surprised in public and to feel unprepared!
A better way is to start with staff and request that your item be agendized through the city manager’s office. Depending on your item, it may go to a subordinate group. When that happens, you’ll want to find out whether the decision of that group is final, or whether it is merely a recommendation to city council. If the decision is final, you will want to know how long you have to file an administrative appeal. The period can be as short as 10 days.
Learn About Related Policies and Politics
Your item may involve long-standing policies and political concerns. Don’t take these policies lightly, even if they seem silly. For example, many cities use a ‘warrants system’ to decide whether to install stop signs in new locations. To be effective, you’ll need to understand that system; don’t assume that it won’t apply in your case. Also, you should learn about political concerns that may impact your issue, (e.g. you may need more support to widen a road in a ‘no growth’ rather than a ‘pro-growth’ neighborhood). Simply put, make an effort before the hearing to learn about other policies and political concerns that may affect your issue.
Develop An Effective Presentation
An effective presentation is important. To make one, you must develop a strategy and follow some simple ‘dos and don’ts.’
Come Up With A Strategy
The strategy you adopt will depend on several things. One of the most important is the type of action required to address your issue. City councils take two main actions: legislative (or quasi-legislative) or adjudicatory (or quasi-adjudicatory). Legislative actions include enacting laws or adopting policies. Adjudicatory actions include deciding whether to issue a land use permit or approve a subdivision map. The first type of decision is likely to apply to everyone. The second is more like a court-decision, and may only affect a particular applicant.
If your issue is legislative, you will probably need to hire professionals. The city council does not want to hear from your attorney, they want to hear from you. So while you may want to talk with professionals before your meeting, you’ll want the officials at the hearing to believe a ‘grassroots’ uprising by deeply concerned citizens is occurring. Because of what is known as the ‘separation of powers’ doctrine, legislative decisions are difficult to overturn in court, so the city council’s decision at the hearing will likely be final.
But if your issue is adjudicatory in nature, you may deal with a variety of legal issues. While it’s easier to challenge adjudicatory decisions in court, you may be not be able to unless you first present your legal points at the hearing. This requirement to ‘exhaust your administrative remedies’ may require advice from an attorney. It is common to have legal representation at the hearing itself, when the issue is adjudicatory in nature.
Follow These Dos and Don’ts
A few simple rules will make your presentation even better.
- Select one or two group representatives to speak.
- Prepare a well-organized presentation lasting no longer than 10-15 minutes.
- Show group support by presenting a petition to city council signed by the association members.
- Bring as many of your members attend the meeting as possible.
Use a ‘win-win’ approach. Be prepared to explain why your proposal is good for the city as a whole, not just your group. An effective approach to resolving challenging issues is outlined in the book, Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury, as follows:
- Separate the people from the problem
- Focus on interests, not positions
- Invent options for mutual gain
- Insist on the use of objective criteria.
I recommend this book as well as The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People by Steven Covey, because both emphasize real ways to transcend competing interests.
- Employ “NIMBY” tactics (“Not-In-My-Backyard” arguments).
- Make personal attacks (even subtle ones).
- Threaten recalls.
- Parade dozens of speakers to the microphone to say essentially the same thing for hours.
- Forget decorum.
- Argue with the council (really, don’t do it).
By recognizing the tremendous power you have and using it wisely, you can to influence local policies and decisions improve your homeowners association and your city.