$700B to the financial sector. $25B to the auto makers. A couple billion here and a couple billion there. At the national and federal level, decisions are made that affect millions and cost billions. At the local level, say city and county, decisions affects thousands and costs thousands to hundreds of thousands to a few million tops. It can be as simple as where to transplant a tree to how far back from the curb should the property be.
“When you choose to serve — whether it’s your nation, your community or simply your neighborhood — you are connected to that fundamental American ideal that we want life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness not just for ourselves, but for all Americans. That’s why it’s called the American dream.”
I recently applied for and was appointed to the City of Davis Finance and Budget Commission. As a commissioner, I review technical finance and budgeting issues that the city faces and make recommendations to the City Council. Here is what I’ve learned so far:
- Local government is very low level work. The issues that face local government does not have the same appeal as national issues. It includes how much to budget for fire and police services and whether to fund another fire station. However, local government is where the real action happens. It’s where the Billions from the federal government finally get spent and effect positive (or negative) change.
- Participating can be very rewarding. While participating in local government for a small city won’t give you the press that most politicians get or even A-list bloggers get, it can be very rewarding. Decisions made and recommendations presented affect people. This is real change down to the lowest level.
- It’s great on the job training. Where else can you learn about development impact fees, the city budgeting process, or financial forecasting but actually see it and experiencing it. True, most of my undergraduate and graduate courses have already covered these topics, however, seeing it first hand is something else. Depending on how you participate, it can provide subject matter knowledge and experience.
- People you meet are well established. Local government is typically resourced by experienced and well established people. There are also very many 20-somethings in prominent local government positions including City Council, Mayors, and County Executives.
How to Participate
There are many ways to participate in local government above and beyond voting. Here are just a few ideas.
- Sign up for President-Elect Obama’s “America Serves“
- Visit your city’s website and search for appointed positions, such as commissions, committees, or work groups
- Volunteer for local city services such as libraries, public safety, parks
- Run for office
- Attend city council meetings
- Attend public meetings for transit agencies
- Make sure that government is open
- Find resources at change.org
- What other ideas do you have? Post them in the comments below.
Since joining the commission, I’ve found that the lessons learned, connections made, and reward are many fold. Not only does participating returns positive results, it affects the community you live in and the lives of those around you.