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Chapter 10: Covering Local Government Meetings

 

 

Rockbridge County Supervisors agenda

Getting a copy of the meeting agenda helps reporters prepare more effective coverage of local governments.

 

Introduction

           In Chapter Eight, as you dealt with distinguishing facts from allegations for your audience, you waded through part of a Valleydale City Council meeting. For that exercise you didn’t need to know a great deal about how city governments work beyond the background that was provided at the top of the exercise. The goal of this chapter is to  prepare you to cover a real government meeting in your community. The exercise at the end of this chapter is just such an assignment. Your instructor will give you your specific task. Keep in mind that effectively reporting on a local city council meeting is only one small but important facet of covering a local community and its government.

 

Who cares about local government?

           Most of us pay at least some attention to what goes on in Washington, D.C. – the domestic agenda and foreign policy that the President and executive branch set for the nation, the way Congress carries out that agenda –  or decides not to – with legislation, the way the  courts modify or reject laws through their rulings. We worry about the impact Washington will have on our pocketbooks, on our safety and on the welfare of our families.

           But many of us pay far less attention to the workings and actions of state and local governments. There is an irony there, because the government policies, programs and laws that affect us most directly, day in and day out, are passed and carried out by our local governments. If you are a college student living on a campus far from home, you could be forgiven for thinking that what the city council in your college town does has nothing to do with you. But when you remember that local governments pass noise ordinances, some drinking laws, and property tax increases (which in turn are passed along to you by your landlord in the form of rent increases), the connection might become a little more obvious.

           As a reporter, you need to learn how your local government works even if you don’t see much personal connection to the community you are in. Almost everyone in your audience is directly affected by what local government does. Your audience members own property, send children to public schools and pay taxes locally. To be able to monitor local government for our audiences, we must first understand how local government is supposed to work. We must understand the system, the players and some of the issues. Carl Schierhorn of Kent State University has said that governments do simple things in complex ways. In our stories, he says, we should focus more on the simple things than on the complex ways. But we can’t explain simply if we don’t understand the complexity ourselves.

 

Local government structure

           In New England, a number of small towns still practice direct democracy. That means that every registered voter may attend periodic town meetings to propose and vote directly on local laws — usually called ordinances — tax rates and other matters. Just about everywhere else in the United States, localities operate as the state and federal governments do, through representative democracy. Citizens elect representatives – variously called council members, commissioners, aldermen, supervisors or some other title  – to govern on their behalf. These elected governments can represent as few as a few hundred people or as many as eight million, as with New York City. There are other elected groups as well – local boards of education, or school boards, water and sewer management boards, hospital boards and conservation district boards, to name a few. There are also other elected officials in many localities – the county sheriff, the local prosecutor, the tax collector.

           One of the challenges of covering local government is the need to understand that one geographic area might comprise numerous governmental jurisdictions. One county I worked in in South Florida consisted of 28 elected municipal governments in addition to an elected county government and school board. And the interests of those myriad governments often conflict. You got an example of that in Exercise 9, when Mayor Hostetter called on the Valleydale City Council to back out of an agreement with Blue Ridge County’s government to build a new regional courthouse.

           Your instructor might choose to discuss with you the roles of these elected officials in your area. Because your assignment at the end of this chapter will be to cover a local government meeting, we will focus on the primary units of local government, the ones most familiar to citizens — city governments, county governments, and, in many areas in the north and Midwest, township governments.

           The elected representatives for each govern within their geographic boundaries according to powers granted them by their state in a charter. They are not allowed to reach beyond those powers in passing laws. For example, most city or county charters allow localities to set local property tax rates, but those rates may have a limit, or cap, imposed by state law or a state’s constitution. Local governments cannot trespass at all in some areas. As another example, local governments can pass some ordinances regulating open containers of alcohol in public. But if the city council in a college town yielded to local pressure and reduced the drinking age to 18, the law would be quickly struck down by a court, because state constitutions allow only the state government to set the legal drinking age.

           City and township governments are usually one of two types – the mayor/council form, or the manager/council form. In the mayor/council form, citizens elect a mayor and several council members, usually five to seven. The mayor acts as the chief executive of the city, and can wield substantial power. Like the council members, the mayor must stand for election periodically, usually every four years. The mayor and his or her staff usually establish their vision for the city and try to persuade the council to approve it by adopting a budget, passing ordinances, setting tax rates, approving plans for private development, and so forth.

    

Box 10.1 City and County Governments

            Most regions in the United States have separate governments for cities and counties. Some areas have other forms of government as well, including the township government. City and county governments are generally one of two types:

1. Mayor/council – The locality is governed by several elected council members (they might also be called commissioners, supervisors, aldermen or some other title), and a separately elected mayor who serves as the locality’s chief executive. The mayor wields substantial power. Most localities elect from five to seven council members, whose terms are usually four years.  

2. Manager/council – The locality is governed by from five to seven elected council or commission members who select a mayor or chair from among themselves. The mayor or chair’s duties are largely ceremonial, and his or her power is limited. The chief executive of the locality is a professional city or county manager hired by the elected officials. As in the mayor/council form, the council or commission members usually serve four-year terms.             

 

           In a manager/council form of government, voters elect council members, but council members hire a professional city or county manager. The manager serves at the pleasure of the council, not the voters. Council members usually elect from among themselves a figurehead mayor to preside at meetings and represent the city at official functions – the ribbon-cutting for the new big-box discount store, for example. The mayor in a manager/council form of government has little power. Most county governments are of the manager/council or manager/commission type, depending on what the county’s elected representatives are called.  (See Box 10.1)

           Elected representatives in both types of local governments may be elected at large – by all voters in the locality —  or by district – by only those voters who live in designated districts within the larger locality. Whether elected officials represent only a district or all the voters in a locality has a substantial impact on how they vote on many issues. For example, there may be consensus among members of a county commission who are elected at-large that the county needs an airport. But with district representation, you can almost guarantee that the commission member from the district where the proposed airport would be built will oppose it.

 

How elected governments function

            The city or county’s elected officials meet periodically – usually once every two weeks – to conduct the locality’s business. They will closely follow an agenda that is prepared by either the manager or the mayor, depending on the kind of government. The meetings are almost always open to the public and the news media. Some items are relatively straightforward – approving several thousand dollars for a new photocopier, for example. Others may prove highly contentious, particularly when citizens understand how a proposal would affect them and come to the council meeting to be heard on the matter. Examples of often-controversial matters include passing local tax increases, approving a new housing development or factory near existing homes, or passing a local ordinance governing certain types of behavior – prohibiting skateboarding on city streets, say.  

           Meeting agendas almost always include a few wild cards, too. Most localities allow time in the meeting for citizens to bring up matters that are not on the agenda. Under a New Business category on the agenda, the elected representatives often have that opportunity, too. That’s what happened in Exercise Eight, when Council Members Wise and Bullard launched yet another attack against City Manager Don Prentice. Sometimes such matters carry a lot of weight. But I once covered a meeting at which the council members got into a shouting match over who was going to offer the opening prayer. (The issue had nothing to do with the constitutional separation of church and state; it was purely political. There had just been an election in which several new council members had been voted in, and the citizen who usually offered the prayer had been a supporter of the “old guard.”) 

           When considering most tax increases, new ordinances (local laws) and some types of developments, the elected officials must hold at least one public hearing. A public hearing is a formal proceeding that has been advertised in the local newspaper for a particular time and date so that people know when to come and be heard. The elected board cannot vote until the required public hearings have been held.

           Whether you are dealing with a county or city government, the elected board will rely on the staffs of various departments in the local government, as well as committees and subcommittees comprising council members and citizens, to prepare and give first consideration to matters that will eventually come before the council. Typical committees include public safety (including police, fire and ambulance/rescue services), public works, planning and zoning, finance and transportation. There might be others as well, depending on the locality’s size and needs. The committees meet regularly, usually in the two weeks between council or commission meetings.  Through the mayor or manager, city or county departments will bring matters to these committees before the matters go before the full council or commission. Sometimes the process works backwards: Things come up at council or commission meetings – issues raised by citizens or council members – that are referred to a committee or a city department for examination. To use Exercise Eight again as an example, the council decided to have the Finance Committee look into the allegations against the city manager. 

 

Budgets

           As with the federal and state governments, one of the most important functions of local government is adopting a budget – a plan for raising and spending public money each year. But unlike the federal government, in almost every state the local governments have to balance their budgets. They may not spend more than they take in.

           The budget process usually takes months, beginning with requests for spending and estimates of income from each city department and ending with the local elected government’s formal vote to adopt the budget, sometimes with accompanying tax increases. Along the way, the elected government will hold several informal or workshop sessions to discuss the budget, and at least one public hearing at which members of the public can comment, discussed above.   

           You might have figured out by now that by the time a matter comes before a city council or county commission it might have been under consideration by department staff and a committee for three months or more. As my former colleague, the late Prof. Ron MacDonald, used to say, “Local governments never do anything for the first time.” Depending on how conscientious local reporters have been with ongoing coverage of an issue, citizens might or might not have had plenty of opportunity to form an opinion on the matter and make that opinion known to their elected representatives.

 

Planning for development

           Let’s look at another example of how an issue would make its way through city government. If a developer wants approval for a new housing subdivision, he or she would first file a set of plans with the staff of the appropriate department, often called the planning department. After reviewing the plans, the planning department staff would take them to the planning and zoning committee. The committee would review the plans as well in a public meeting, often conducting its own public hearing. The committee members would then vote on whether to recommend approval of the development to the city council or county commission. Remember that the committee’s vote is only a recommendation. It is not final.

            At the council or commission meeting, the council or commission may be required to hold another public hearing. After that the members can vote to accept the recommendation of the planning and zoning committee, reject the recommendation, or send it back to the staff or committee for more work or other options.

 

What are they voting on?

           To citizens and reporters, these votes can be confusing. Here’s why:

           Let’s say, in our example above, the planning and zoning committee voted to recommend against the new housing subdivision. At the council meeting, it would probably come to a vote in the form of a motion by a council member to accept the committee’s recommendation. If council members vote “yes” on the motion, citizens – and some reporters – might confuse that “yes” vote for approval of the subdivision. What the council did was vote yes on the committee’s recommendation, which was to reject the subdivision. As a reporter, you need to be careful.                                 

 

Who are those other people?

           In addition to the city manager or mayor and the other elected representatives, you might encounter several other officials at a local government meeting. (See Box 10.2) The city, county or township attorney is a lawyer hired by the locality, either part-time or full-time, to give legal advice to the manager and elected representatives. The attorney might be called on several times during a council meeting. The clerk is the employee responsible for creating an official record of the meeting, and will keep minutes and record the result of votes and other actions.

    

Box 10.2 Who Does What?

            Elected officials make up only some of the people at a local government meeting. In addition to the mayor or chair and the council members, the meeting might include:

1. The city or county manager is the chief executive of the locality. Hired by the elected government, he or she serves at its pleasure. The manager usually prepares the agenda and makes a brief presentation about each item.

2. The city or county attorney is a lawyer hired by the locality full- or part-time to give legal advice on pending matters.

3. The clerk makes the official record of the meeting, including minutes, votes and other decisions by the elected officials.

4. The planning and zoning director makes recommendations to the elected body on requests for approval of construction projects or certain uses of property.

5. Department heads include the police chief, utilities director and finance director.

6. The audience usually comprises citizens and journalists.    

   

           Key city departments are often represented at the meeting by their heads – the finance director, the director of planning and zoning, the police chief. Remember that  none of these people can vote or otherwise substitute for elected officials; they are there to provide information or expert advice only.

 

Stories from local government

           If you read, watch or listen to local news media over the course of a year, you can probably identify several types of stories about local government. How many of each kind of story you see or hear depends on the locality, how good its government is, and whether the reporters covering the local government are as good as they ought to be. Among the types of stories you might recognize, in about the order of the frequency with which we see them:

           The record – The stories that simply tell audiences what the local government did at its latest meeting.  “Valleydale’s city council last night voted 4-1 to approve the city’s budget for next year.” We see these stories most frequently, often with ledes as dull as this one, with no hint given to the audience of the impact of the vote.

           The analysis – Stories that go beyond the action of the elected government to try to show audiences the significance of it: “Property taxes will go up an average of about $50 next year for Valleydale residents as a result of City Council action last night.” 

           Somebody screwed up – Stories that report a costly mistake or improper action by an individual or body: “Valleydale will have to spend $20,000 on a special referendum because someone got the math wrong on a ballot item in Tuesday’s election.” Obviously, reporters usually have to find those stories on their own or thanks to a tip. Public officials don’t often trumpet their own failures.

           Nobody screwed up, but the system is – Someone suffered, or taxpayers will foot the bill, because of the nature of government: “Blue Ridge County will have to raise $3 million in local taxes for a new sewage treatment plant because of new federal requirements that are not fully funded by federal dollars.”

           Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list. The point is to show you that the more you know about how local government is supposed to work, and the more you can learn about your own local government, the better you can serve your audience.

 

Getting ready

           In addition to learning how your local government is organized and works, before you attend a council meeting get a copy of the agenda and study it. Check clippings and file tape also. Have there been recent stories about anything on the agenda? Check internet search engines as well: Has anything coming before your local government been a hot-button issue elsewhere? News coverage of the issue in other communities can provide you with valuable background and angles to pursue. Talk to the city, county or township manager, council or commission members, and department heads for an idea of what is likely to happen and the significance of pending items. Focus on one or two items only. You don’t want to write a story summarizing every item – some will have little or no impact on your audience.

           As you get to know the players, you can also determine which initiatives – and the responses to them – reflect elected officials’ campaign promises, big donors, personal or political ideologies, constituents’ needs or desires, or even squabbles among elected officials. Some of those squabbles will be remarkably personal.

 

Ethics

           Covering a city, county or township government regularly can help you immensely in serving your local audience. You will have the opportunity to become something on an expert on ongoing issues. You will become comfortable enough with jargon, technical language and bureaucratese to translate it for your audience. You will develop sources who will tip you to events and issues that your audience needs to know about but that might not be reflected in public documents, schedules or agendas. You might even uncover stories that help expose and correct wrongdoing, waste or inefficiency.

Remembering whom you serve

           But there is a potential ethical dilemma inherent in covering just about any beat, not just local government. Put bluntly, you might forget who you are there to serve. In trying to serve your audience, you will get to know local officials well – elected or not. Some of them might become friends or close acquaintances. You will depend on them for tips, explanations and quotes. Because it is human nature to like some people more than others, you might find yourself talking to some more often than others. That has the potential to slant your stories if you are not giving a fair hearing to all sides of an issue. Because some people are more quotable than others, the same thing happens when you decide whom to interview and whose quotes or bites to put in your story.

           Because you will become so familiar with their jobs and the tasks and issues facing the people you cover, you might also develop more empathy with them than is healthy for serving your audience. You might become overly sympathetic to their contention that some things should be trusted to experts without explaining them to audiences. In the worst case, you might be tempted to ignore wrongdoing by someone you have become close to.

           These things don’t happen because reporters want to be co-opted. They happen because we get to know the people we report on as human beings. Practically everyone in our audience remains a faceless stranger, so it can be harder to maintain empathy with an audience you don’t know than with government officials and employees whom you do.

           News organizations recognize this potential problem. Some attempt to solve it by rotating reporters to another beat every couple of years. The problem with that approach is that it ensures that there is little institutional memory and limited expertise on the part of whoever is covering the beat at a given time.

           It should be possible for a reporter to be well connected with people on his or her beat  — short of an intimate relationship — and still maintain the necessary independence. It is up to the reporter to make clear to people with whom he or she becomes friendly that  the reporter’s professional responsibility comes first, and when he or she is “wearing the reporter hat.” A conscientious reporter can teach sources the difference between gossiping about girlfriends and talking about a department head who is being investigated over his expense vouchers for an out-of-town trip. I once covered a city in South Florida whose city manager was fond of meeting with reporters at a local bar after city council meetings. He often gave us valuable perspectives on issues before the city. That, in turn, allowed us to serve our audiences better. Then one night he was arrested on a charge of drunk driving on his way home from the bar. I felt bad about it, but I also wrote a story about his arrest. The city manager, to his credit, understood why that was appropriate.  

           If a reporter becomes intimately involved with someone on his or her beat, though, the appropriate solution is usually to move the reporter to another beat to preserve his or her independence and avoid betraying the trust of both the audience and the person the reporter is involved with.

    

Box 10.3 Strategies for Covering Local Government Meetings

  1. Get an agenda before the meeting.  Do your homework.
  2. Review the agenda using impact as your guide. The order of items on the agenda often has nothing to do with their importance.  
  3. Get the background. Check for previous stories about topics on the agenda. Talk to the city manager, council members, department heads and involved citizens before the meeting.
  4. At the meeting, listen closely to get quotes from citizens right. Make sure you get the correct spelling of their names.  
  5. When you put your story together, focus on only one or two items. Consider doing separate stories about other significant actions.
  6. Translate jargon, technical terms and bureaucratese. Help your audiences understand the significance of what happened.
  7. Quotes show the human face of the issue. Choose quotes that do that effectively, but don’t clutter your story with them. Use paraphrase to provide background and explain the issue.            

    

Strategies

           When you are assigned to cover a local government meeting (See Box 10.3):

           1. Do your homework. Get an agenda to see what items are on it.

           2. Let impact on your audience be your guide. The order of the agenda has nothing to do with the importance of each item. The number of people wanting to be heard on a particular issue might not reflect its importance, either. For example, a city budget can take so many months to adopt that no citizens show up for the final vote, even if it includes a tax increase. On the other hand, an entire neighborhood might show up to oppose a request by someone to operate a hair salon in the basement of her home. No one outside that neighborhood is likely to be affected by the decision.    

           3. Check your own news outlet and others for previous stories about any of the items. Talk to the players before the meeting. Understand going in what the significant items are about.

           4. At the meeting, listen closely and record accurately the comments of citizens. Follow people out of the meeting to make sure you have their names right. Ask them follow-up questions.

           5. Usually, choose just one or two items to focus on in your story. If other significant decisions  were made or issues arose, consider a separate story.

           6. Write so that your audiences can understand what happened, and its significance in their lives. Translate jargon, technical terms and bureaucratese into plain English.

           7. Use quotes sparingly to show the depth of feeling by elected officials and citizens about the issue. Use paraphrase to provide background and explain the issue.

 

Exercise 10: Covering a local government meeting

           Your instructor will assign a local government meeting for you to attend. Or you might be given the opportunity to choose a meeting from among several local elected bodies.   After you have written a newspaper story and a Web blurb about an issue from the meeting (your instructor might allow you to do more than one draft), write the story on deadline in class as a 30-second RDR.

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