Tips for Understanding Local Government

Figuring out how your local government works and who you will want to talk to about a new skatepark can be confusing for people who haven’t done it before. Thankfully it’s not as confusing as it might seem.

How the new skatepark is approved will largely be determined by the agency (or agencies) that own the land, will plan and manage its creation, and will maintain it once it’s completed. These may be completely different groups. It can be confusing as different parts of the government weigh in on what seems like a pretty simple project. Some towns are small enough that they don’t have large bureaucratic parks departments and that makes advocacy much easier. Larger cities, especially those with outlying metropolitan areas and suburbs, are often so vast in scope that it takes a different person to approve each minor step in the process.

The first step in unraveling your City Hall is to identify the departments and/or individuals who will be most important to your skatepark project. You should start by checking out the city’s Web site. Some cities have community workshops and meetings for discussing civic projects and these are great to attend just to watch other people promote their particular agendas. Advocates should consider attending a few of these meetings just to see it in action; in a few months it will be the skatepark project being discussed and it won’t hurt to have an early idea of what to expect.

Most cities are governed by a publicly elected City Council. This body is usually composed of representatives from each area of town and they will require a lot of your attention. A map of the city will be useful and help the group understand what areas are under which Council member’s jurisdiction. The Council Member who will have the skatepark in their area will be particularly important to get to know. Before long you will know each of these people and they will know you.

City Council advises the Mayor on major issues and is often required to approve major projects. City Council officials are elected and do not generally like to make unpopular decisions (especially if the project discussed is in their district). City Council members can be young or old. Some may even have kids that skate, or maybe even be skaters themselves. Naturally, finding out these details will help you make a compelling case for the new skatepark.

The advocacy group should put a lot of effort toward building a positive relationship with the Parks and Recreation Department (or P&RD). The advocates will work closely with a person from whichever committee or department is responsible for creating and supporting recreation facilities in the area. It is likely that several good relationships will develop between the advocates and individuals within the P&RD, including the chief planner, the maintenance supervisor, and the public relations liaison. The more you can learn about these people now, the easier it will be to establish a positive relationship later. Do the homework, get on their Web sites, and get to know your representatives!

A typical City Government structure will look like this:

City Council: Elected officials each representing a district within the City. They provide the priorities and agenda for the local government with an emphasis on policy, managing the budget, and approving contracts made with other agencies and businesses. (City Council members who do not represent a particular district are often known as “at large” though they perform in the same capacity as the other members.)

Mayor: Also an elected official. The Mayor will be the executor of City Council’s wishes. The Mayor will often manage the day-to-day business of running the city. The Mayor will also bring issues to City Council for consideration or approval, and may recommend responses for particular situations.

Some cities employ a City Manager. The City Manager will be an appointed person and is tasked with the day-to-day operations of running a city. The presence of a City Manager may adjust the Mayor’s role somewhat.

Departments: City Government is broken up into departments. There will be a Fire Department, Police Department, Parks Department, and other service groups like Public Works, Transportation, Schools, Hospitals, and so on. It’s not necessarily true that all of these agencies are government employees; sometimes a specific agency may be contracting with the government to provide particular services. (This is relevant because a government agency may have requirements for how its decisions are made that private agencies do not.)

Parks Department: Your Parks Department is likely a department within City Government. (Some parks services are supplied to a community by outside agencies such as a County Parks Department or agency contracted with the City to provide park services.) The Parks Department provides three major functions: Planning and creating new parks, maintaining the current parks, and offering recreational services and programs. If you are looking to create a new skatepark, if the site you prefer is within a current City Park, you’ll be dealing a lot with planners within the Parks Department.

Districts: In larger towns and cities you may encounter districts. These are smaller areas within the City that are managed by particular people or facilities. A Fire Station may be responsible for emergencies within its area, or a school attract students from a particular neighborhood. Parks Departments typically do not have districts as the nature of their “product” is measured not by geographical boundaries but by the level of service it brings to the area. The term “district” can also define a tax area for special services.