There are three levels of local government I suggest my neighbors watch closely: Collin County, the City of McKinney and McKinney ISD. Being a student of local government is like being in a giant laboratory. Some people think that the only way you might be an effective player in governance is to run for office. I disagree.
Officeholders usually find themselves decision makers yet highly constrained. They have to operate under rules that, quite frankly, limit what they can do or say. And while they are at the table in meetings and at the dais, they actually find themselves having too much to read and study to be fully prepared if they also have to hold down full-time jobs.
Also, in my opinion, they lose some independence. Before long they end up having to go along to get along. If they want something done and need support, then they need three more votes (two in county government). It is said that politics is all about compromise. But the deep levels of compromise can be ugly and are often not what they expected — or wanted.
The real power is in the people. Well, it should be. But here is what happens. The majority of the citizens don’t care or don’t have time as long as their garbage gets picked up and emergency responses are relatively fast. If water comes out of the faucets and and sewerage is taken away, then the focus is on taking kids to sports activities, keeping the yard and house maintained and on advancing in a career. I understand.
And even the power of the citizen or business is compromised if you want something that directly benefits the person. I’ve been told by some prominent business people in McKinney that I am right on target, that I was their hero or some other words of encouragement. That is nice but when I ask them to help, they back away. Why? Because they do business or have favors to ask of an elected official. They have even told me that have to go along to get along.
Wait! They are knowledgeable about things that go on in McKinney, things they say irk them and are unethical or immoral at best and questionable about the legality in many cases, but can’t or won’t say anything because they rub shoulders with people at the Chamber or the county club and don’t won’t to get their friends upset at them? Ugh! You’re killing me!
So, the masses don’t know and don’t care and the knowledgeable are disgusted but may need a favor at some point in the future. Gee, that is a horrible community situation. But that is the way it is.
There is actually another group, and it is this particular group I am writing to today. There are those interested in the way government works, but they find it way too complicated. Politics are complex but finances are even more difficult to grasp. So, if you don’t want a single thing from local government other than good, honest decisions that serve all people today and, more importantly, our children and grandchildren in the future, then today’s blog is for you.
How Do You Learn?
It does take some time to learn, but most local governments have done a good job of putting information on their Web sites in the name of Transparency. There are documents, meeting videos and minutes available for your education. I believe there is the equivalent of a master’s degree just waiting for you to grasp.
However, in one sense, it can be like drinking from a fireplug. Most elected bodies do, in fact, get an orientation just before or after they are elected. However, these are usually just a few hours or maybe a two-day retreat. And then the remainder is on-the-job-training. And OJT will eventually get you there if you are on the governance boards long enough to get the benefit of hours of meetings.
First, just explore every single piece of information available on the Web sites of local governments. The amount of published information has grown immensely over the years – and for a reason – presumably for you to read! Here are just a few:
Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs).
Official Statements for Bond Issues.
Continuing Disclosure Filings Related to Bond Issues.
Video Recordings of Council Workshops and Council Meetings.
Video Recordings of MEDC/MCDC Meetings (not yet but coming).
Video Recordings of Planning & Zoning Meetings.
Agendas and Agenda Packets.
Minutes of Meetings.
The City Charter & Ordinances.
Pertinent State Laws (on another site).
How Does One Start?
In one of my MPA classes I taught at UNT years ago, I handed out a three-inch set of printouts of data to analyze. The class freaked out. I then told them to just study one page. Understand it completely. Hand calculate a few of the ratios. Then I said, all of the pages are the same. Different months, but the same data. Different classifications, but the same data.
That is not always the case, but my point applied here is to first glance through the entire budget, for instance. It is organized in a certain way for a reason. If in PDF format, as most are these days, there are bookmarks that help to navigate. Then read the transmittal letters and explanations in the front end. Read them twice. Maybe three times. Next year’s budget is likely to be in the exact same format with different numbers. And the key stories conveyed in the transmittal sections will usually tell you what is changed.
Let’s Stop Here.
In the spirit of taking a good spoonful and digesting before the next bite, let’s see if any McKinney or Collin County citizen (heck, anybody!) will take an interest in today’s blog and be willing to become a student again. After 42 years in the municipal business, I am still a student. I will always be. Yes, it is THAT interesting!
I hope my blogs, in their entirety but particularly those directly talking about local government, are being viewed as educational tools.
If I have to explain the rewards of being better educated or to make someone a better thinker, then I’m at a loss as to how to convey that motivation. A smarter citizenry can help a governing body. My goodness, just read the City’s weekly newsletter. They are begging the citizens to get more knowledgeable. It is a double-edged sword. You are likely to be way more supportive and understanding of most decisions that are being made.
You can also be there as a reminder that the body is veering from their stated goals. Or when something simply smells bad. Why did something that seems significant get placed on the consent agenda? Was it discussed before in a workshop and I just missed it? When some council members went against a staff recommendation, did they place on the record their explanation of their decision?
This is all about making government more open and honest. There is only one group of people who could possible be against such a goal. Let’s look at the group most of us want to be in. I was a Rotarian for only a short time years ago, but I am motivated to write these blogs today for similar reasons Rotarians subscribe to their Four-Way Test:
1) Is it the truth?
2) Is it fair to all concerned?
3) Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
4) Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
Some might argue that I am failing on the third one. But I think the first and second are my primary concerns now and the other two will work out over time. LFM