How Do I Get Involved In Local Government?

Our local focus.  In Wisconsin, we've been frustrated with our state government for some time, and the recent national election results have further alarmed people and motivated them to act!  People are anxious and want to know what we can do to to fight back locally against the terrible policy changes and budget cuts we think are coming.  Of course, it's not that simple.  If you think back to your civics classes (if they didn't eliminate them!) government is layered and complex.  While we might be able to be most effective at the local level with our actions, not everything can be fixed at the local level. For this guide, we will be focusing mostly on the legislative branches of local government, some on the executive, and a little on the judicial branch. We also will not be focusing much on the state and federal levels of government - except where they limit or give power to our local governments here in Dane County.  Providing information about our Dane County Government as well as local cities, towns, villages and public school districts.

So you decided to "get involved".  When people first decide to get involved in local government it is extremely hard to know where to start.  Most people get involved because they care about a particular issue that is impacting them.  It's much easier if you get a postcard from your elected official inviting you to a meeting about a local development or liquor license, but if you want better regional transportation options, it gets complicated quickly. Some people start with running for office, but that's not usually successful without some prior experience - but sometimes it is!  The rules about how to get involved don't exist, so try it your way!  Most people start with working for a policy or project, or against.  Some help organize others.  Some start by being on a government committee.  Others jump right into running for office.  Whatever it is, we're glad you're interested in getting involved!  This section focuses on getting involved to influence local decisions.  If you are interested in elections, go here. 

QUESTIONS TO THINK ABOUT

What issue are you interested in?  And what do you want done about it? 

If you're out to save the planet and don't know where to begin, you might try attending a few local government meetings to see what they are talking about to start to narrow down your focus.  Committees typically have titles that will clue you in about what might be most effective.  At the county you might attend the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, or in the City of Madison you might choose the Committee on the Environment or the Sustainability Committee. You might also discover that these committee meet at the same time and wonder why?  Might be a good question to ask!  Or you might already know that you are very focused on making urban life more friendly to butterflies and bees to help with pollination or that you want local government to think more about sustainability or want to work on the ensuring the public market focuses on local food sources Most local governments have webpages that have lists of the committees they have, see Dane County Board Committees, Cities Committees, Towns Committees and Village Committees for more information in Dane County.  After researching, you might be interested in joining one of the committees.  You can also just talk to your elected officials and let them know you are interested in a topic and ask them the best way to get involved.   If they don't have ideas or don't respond, you could also try googling the topic with your local municipality's name and see what comes up.  You may find reports, meeting minutes and other materials that will give you ideas of where to start.  Some local governments also have searchable databases (Legistar for City of Madison and Dane County, Board Docs for Madison Metropolitan School District) for legislation they have passed or has been introduced and you may be able to find out what recent actions they have taken may take soon. 

Who can change it?

Our Issues page will walk you through what various levels of government do.  Do you need to talk to your city elected officials or town or village board, or should you be talking to your county board supervisor, or maybe this is an issue you need to talk to your state or federal representatives?  Sometimes you may be able to work with all of them, depending upon the issue you want resolved.  At other times, there is little that local officials can do because they have been pre-empted by the state or federal government (passed a law taking away or limiting local authority) from legislating in that area and you have to get very creative to find local solutions, especially if it is something that can't be solved by spending money in the budget.  An example of this is that our local governments can't have a Regional Transit Authority that would tax a local region to have a transit system that isn't limited to local government boundaries.  (See Madison's efforts to push on this issue.) Budgets can be another area where the federal government prevents us from doing something by threatening to take away funding if local governments do certain things.  (See recent, and legally questionable threat by the Trump Administration to take away federal funding for “sanctuary cities” that prohibit their law enforcement officials from reporting and detaining immigrants for federal immigration enforcement actions.)

How do I influence the decision makers?

Start by talking to the people who make the decisions!  At the local level you may run into your elected official around town or can call them up and ask them to have coffee with you.  (Don't offer to buy them the coffee, it creates an awkward moment where the elected official has to decide if they would be violating ethics laws by accepting a drink from someone trying to influence them.) After you get to know them, find out what they think about the issues you care about.  Look at voting records  of elected officials and see who is likely to support your ideas and who is not.  See which ones seem like the swing votes (i.e. haven't already made up or might change their minds) and focus on them.  If you think someone will support your idea, ask them to sponsor a piece of legislation (draft it and get it introduced for consideration).  Once legislation is introduced, you could call or email your elected officials, letting them know what you think.  You can attend meetings and register for or against items on their agenda, you can speak at most meetings as well.  Speaking at meetings varies and usually there is a time limit on how long you can speak.  Typically public comment is limited to 2, 3 or 5 minutes.  Sometimes there is even an item on the agenda that allows you to speak to the body about any issue that is not on their agenda, which may be a useful tool if you are trying to get something started.  Elected bodies and their committees can be run very informally, or very formally and it varies widely.   Even if you speak or register, staying and watching how they vote may put pressure on them to vote the way you want.  You can organize 10 people to email or come with you and you'll have an even bigger impact.  See how can I best influence my elected officials section for details.  Another tactic may be to join a committee and have the committee make recommendations.   And if all else fails, recruit someone to run against the person, or do it yourself!

 

WHO ARE MY ELECTED OFFICIALS?

The easiest way to find out who your elected officials are is to go to myvote.wi.gov.  However, when we tested it, several members could not find their local elected officials.  Another resource may be the Dane County Clerk's 2016-2017 Directory. You can also find what is on your ballot before you go to vote we looking at the newspaper, checking out the information from the League of Women Voters and myvote.wi.govHere are some other ways to find out who your local elected officials are as well as, in many cases, their term.

 

DANE COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISORS

SCHOOL BOARDS IN DANE COUNTY

CITIES IN DANE COUNTY

VILLAGES IN DANE COUNTY

TOWNS IN DANE COUNTY

 

How can I find out about my elected official voting record?

Typically it's a painstaking process where you need to search through minutes to find the issues you want to track and see if they did a roll call vote (specifically called on people and recorded their votes) or if they voted on a voice vote (the chair decides if they heard more yeses or noes without doing an official count).  It it was a voice vote, you won't know unless someone was there to witness it and remembers or wrote it down.  Some communities have searchable databases (Legistar for City of Madison and Dane County, Board Docs for Madison Metropolitan School District) that make this process much easier . . . others do not.  Sometimes advocacy groups have researched this already and produced a score card.  Depending upon the group, you may want to do your own research to determine if their report card is accurate.  Often comparison pieces done by candidates are particularly suspect.

 

HOW CAN I BEST INFLUENCE MY ELECTED OFFICIALS?

That depends.  Some elected officials respond to every email from their constituents, others have a message that say "mailbox is full".  Some prefer phone calls or a conversation over a cup of coffee.  Some think their cell phone is a communication device for everything except having a person-to-person real time live conversation. Some work all day and are in meetings all night and you simply can't get in touch with them on the phone, but they can email you at 11pm.  Some abhor public testimony because it takes too much time, others take budget hearings very seriously.  Some pay attention to what is written in the newspaper (try a letter to the editor) or on a blog, some pay attention to facebook and twitter comments, some pay attention to neighborhood associations or some pay attention to what other local leaders are saying.  Some don't do any of that.  Sad truth of the matter is, it will take some time to figure it out.  Best to start with your own elected official or someone who agrees with you on an issue you are trying to influence and ask them what works for the people you are trying to influence.  It will be different for each local body, and for each elected official.

  • Phone call
  • Email
  • Set up a meeting - by yourself or with a group
  • Facebook or Twitter
  • Text
  • Write a letter
  • Write a letter to the editor
  • Do a door-to-door petition
  • Do an online petition
  • Show up to meetings and register for or against an issue
  • Show up to meetings and speak for or against an issue
  • Set up a meeting and invite your elected official to it
  • Sponsor a debate
  • Issue a press release
  • Hold a rally or protest

WHO ELSE IS INFLUENCING MY ELECTED OFFICIALS (AND GETTING PAID)?  i.e.  WHO IS ALLOWED TO LOBBY AND HOW CAN WE FIND OUT ABOUT THEIR ACTIVITIES?

Very few local government will have information about who is lobbying.  Here are a few we know of where you can find out who is lobbying, assuming the lobbyists are following the rules and that is quite often not the case.  Because the clerks generally don't verify or check into the lobbying information without a complaint being filed, local lobbying tracking is quite difficult and the rules are rarely enforced.  If you are interested in filing complaints, you should read the ordinances to follow proper procedure.

 

City of Madison

This is the lobbyist registration information available for the City of Madison.  They provide links to all the registration forms on-line.  Sometimes they are not completely up to date, so if you are looking for something recent, you may want to check with their office as well.  They have information about who has to register and how to register, the ordinance, and links to training by the city attorney's office.  The city also allows people to register online.

 

Dane County

This is the lobbying information from the Dane County Clerk's website.

This is the link to the lobbying ordinance:  Chapter 8: Regulation of Lobbying

 

If you know of any other municipalities in Dane County that have local lobbying laws, please let us know at admin@prodane.org so we can add that information.

 

WHAT ARE OPEN RECORDS LAWS AND WHY ARE THEY IMPORTANT?

The is the document from the Wisconsin Department of Justice about Open Records law.  Here is the information from the City of Madison City Attorney's office. The Public Health Department for Madison and Dane County has their own page on open records.

The Midwest Environmental Advocates has this handy toolkit that may be helpful as well.

 

HOW DO I FIND OUT WHEN MEETINGS ARE?

Almost every Dane County municipality posts their agendas on the internet.  State law requires them to post them at least 24 hours in advance of the meetings.  Most clerks post them at their offices if they are not on the internet. Here are links to where you can find meetings.

Dane County

Cities

Villages

Towns

Schools

 

NOTE:  Not every committee is always listed for the City of Madison and Dane County.  If you only look in the Legistar records, you often miss other meetings that don't have access to that computerized system.  Some examples of meetings you might miss are the Madison Police and Fire Commission, the Dane County Housing Authority, the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission and others.  Some committees have their own websites, but others do not.  As this guide continues to be updated, we will compile a list of websites to find additional information.

 

WHAT ARE OPEN MEETINGS LAWS AND WHY ARE THEY IMPORTANT?

Here is a useful 46-page guide to open meetings laws, but it hasn't been updated since 2010.  The Wisconsin Towns Association also has this 5-page guide.  The League of Wisconsin Municipalities also has their FAQs on this page.  This is a powerpoint by the City of Madison City Attorney's office as well as a summary of the law.

 

The important thing to know about open meetings laws are that if too many people on an elected body, or any subgroup of that body get together and decide to act a certain way and they control the outcome of the vote, they are in violation of the law.  If such a group is gathered and they are discussing matters they will be voting on, the meeting must be publicly noticed.  This may be confusing, because the State Legislature has special rules that allow them to be exempt from these laws when they meet in caucuses, but local governments have no such exceptions.

 

Important concepts of the open meetings laws include:

  • Meetings of any bodies of government need to be held in a publicly accessible location.
  • Meetings must be noticed at least 24 hours in advance
  • Meetings can only be held in closed session for specific reasons (considering legal advice, personnel matters, certain negotiations, etc.)
  • It is important that members of a body do not meet and discuss things that they will be voting on if they could determine the outcome of the meeting.  Issues of quorum (50% +1 of the group meets when not publicly noticed), negative quorum (a group of less than quorum, but who can still determine the outcome by blocking passage of an item) and walking quorum (people have a series of meetings or contacts that have the same effect as quorum or negative quorum) become very important.

HOW DO I TRACK ISSUES I'M INTERESTED IN?

Start with what you know--a reputable advocacy group, the local newspapers, the opinions of your neighbors and friends.  Check with your neighborhood association (City of Madison Neighborhood Associations) and the Alders or County Supervisors you admire. Do some internet research.  Find out who the experts are and read their stuff (but don't believe everything you read).  Identify what level of government is in charge of this issue, find the committee(s) that take action on it, and follow those committees, not just once, but over time.  Find out when they meet, read the agendas, minutes, and documents.  Sign up to get notice of the meetings, attend them as much as you can, or watch them if they have been taped; get to know the committee members' positions.  Show up at the meetings!  Testify for (usually 2, 3 or 5 minutes) on an issue that is ready for a decision. You will rapidly become familiar to the committee members and to other citizens who are interested. Tell them why you are there and find out why they are.  Chances are it won't be boring.  It can be one of the most memorable and absorbing experiences of your civic life.  See our issues page for some places to start on some issues.

 

WHAT ETHICS LAWS DO ELECTED OFFICIALS NEED TO FOLLOW?

Each local municipality may have their own ordinances and some even have committees to hear ethics complaints.  Smaller municipalities likely do not have such committees and ordinances.  Here are some that we found, but you may want to ask your elected official or clerk if such rules exist in other communities.  There are also state laws that cover ethics.  Here is the info from the State Ethics Commission.

City of Madison

This is the summary of the code, a powerpoint, and a policy manual from the City Attorney.  Here is information on the ethics board including their agendas and minutes, as well as members.  They do not meet on a regular basis and usually only meet if something is referred to them or someone files a complaint.

County Board

This is the Dane County Ordinance: Chapter 9: Ethics Code  This is the advice from the Dane County Corporation Counsel on Ethics.  These are the people on the county Ethics Board.  You can find the statements of economic interests here for employees, elected officials and committee members.

Other

If you know of any other municipalities in Dane County that have local ethics laws, please let us know at admin@prodane.org so we can add that information.

If you feel that an elected official has violated ethics laws  you can file a complaint.  For violations of state laws, you have to file a complaint with the District Attorney.  If the District Attorney doesn't do anything within 20 days, you can petition the attorney general.

HOW DO I JOIN A COMMITTEE?

Each local government may be different, sometimes the executive appoints committees, sometimes it is the leader of the legislative body, but appointments are typically approved by the full elected body.  However, in some cases, they are not.  Each municipality will have their own rules and different types of appointments may have different procedures.  Here's some info for some bodies in Dane County. 

Dane County - Here's the list of county committees, and an online application (or here's the print version)  This is the list of committees that the county executive appoints.  At the county level, the County Board Chair appoints supervisors to the main committees that they have.

City of Madison - The City of Madison probably has the best information about how to get on a committee, and the absolute worst follow through.  The link has information on vacancies, the application and statement of interest form you need to fill out.  They have them in both Spanish and English.   We suggest you apply, and probably apply often.  Don't expect to get any communication about your appointment from the mayor's office.  Until you get appointed.  We suggest you let your alder, committee members and staff of the committees know of your interest.  The mayor makes the appointments and the information is kept in a database in their office.  Each mayor has their own theories about what they are looking for when making appointments.  Sometimes they are looking to diversify based on race or gender, sometimes it based on geography.  Right now, its very hard for near east side people to get appointed to city committees, but its still worth a try! If you don't live in the City of Madison, you need a 2/3 vote of the city council to get approved.  Typically they only allow people with a special skill or knowledge to be on committees if they don't live in the city.  In the City of Madison, the mayor makes the vast majority of appointments.  The Council President only appoints alders to committees of the council.

Other - Not many of the other town and village websites had information for citizens that were interested in joining a committee, but we found most cities and some villages and towns, here they are!

If you know of any other municipalities in Dane County that have online resources or information about how to join committees, please let us know at admin@prodane.org so we can add that information.

HOW DO I RUN FOR OFFICE?

See this page for details!

COMING SOON! 

This is our "to do" list for the guide.

When the City of Madison Mayor publishes their calendar on the mayor's website, are those meetings open to the public?

Why can't I speak to items on the Madison City Council Agenda that are being referred?

How do I register to speak at a city or county meeting?

How do I use Legistar (City of Madison and Dane County Board)?

How do I use Board Docs? (Madison Metropolitan School District?

What is the consent agenda the City of Madison Common Council uses?

More info on open records laws.

Much more information on other Dane County Municipalities.

What can I do to help support my elected officials when they are in office?

Didn't see something you were looking for?  Let us know!  We are seeking additional questions people have so we can make this as comprehensive as possible.  We have many ideas of our own to make it more helpful but we'd love your questions!  Questions may be submitted to admin@prodane.org or brendakonkel@gmail.com.