Cover art: istockphoto.com/MirekP
Have Your Say At City Hall
By D.R. Bartlette
Yes, you can have your say at City Hall and you don’t need a degree in political science to do so.
“I like to think of city council meetings like family meetings at the kitchen table; sometimes you just have to all sit down and work things out … together,” says Fayetteville citizen and environmentalist Fran Alexander.
Alexander believes that under Mayor Lioneld Jordan, citizens will be able to more easily provide input about their town. Alexander, who supported Jordan for mayor, pointed out that the new mayor’s transition team had a group dedicated to studying “communication” to outline where the problems are.
But citizens do need a basic understanding of how our City Hall works in order to be more effective at getting their views heard.
“Most people don’t know what they don’t know until they are sitting in the council room attending a meeting and realize then that they don’t know when to open their mouths,” Alexander says.
So first, some “Municipal Civics 101”: The City of Fayetteville has a mayor-council form of government. In this system, the city council is the legislative and policy-making body of city government, much like Congress is for the Federal government. It sets city policy by passing ordinances and resolutions, determines the city budget and appoints and removes certain board and commission members.
An ordinance is a city law, passed by the city council and signed by the mayor, which is enforced by local police and the district attorney. A resolution, on the other hand, is a non-binding statement made by the city council.
The city council is composed of eight council members, or aldermen, and the mayor. Two aldermen are elected from each of the four wards in Fayetteville. To find out which ward you live in, you can visit the city’s Access Fayetteville Web site.
What actually goes down at a city council meeting? The best way to understand how city council meetings are structured is to either watch a meeting online at the city’s Access Fayetteville Web site or on the city’s Government Access Channel — channel 16 on Cox Cable.
Or, better yet, attend a meeting in person. The city council meets at 6 p.m. every first and third Tuesday of the month in room 219 of the City Administration Building in downtown Fayetteville. The agenda is posted on the city’s Web site the Monday before the meeting. Go to the “city clerk” page and you’ll see the link to “City Council Final Agenda.”
You can also get copies of proposed agenda items from the city clerk — either via e-mail or fax, or you can pick up a hardcopy at the city clerk’s office in room 308 of the City Administration Building.
City council meetings are very structured, and it helps to know what is happening so you can keep up and understand what’s going on. First, there’s the call to order, then the roll call, the Pledge of Allegiance and the mayor’s announcements and proclamations.
Next is the consent agenda. These are resolutions that have already been reviewed at a city council agenda session. There may be several items on the consent agenda, but they are all approved in a block. There is no opportunity for public input on the consent agenda at the meeting; if you see a consent agenda item for an upcoming meeting that you want discussed, contact the city clerk’s office for instructions.
After the consent agenda, the council considers “unfinished business,” left over from a previous meeting. Each item is dealt with individually: typically, a staff member will give a report, then the council will ask questions, then it will be open for public comment, before it goes back to the council for their final comments and vote.
It only takes five affirmative, or yes, votes, to pass ordinances and resolutions. If the mayor vetoes an ordinance, the council can override it with a two-thirds majority vote.
Next on the agenda is “new business.” The same rules apply as with unfinished business, including the public comment session.
You don’t have to fill out any forms or make any special requests to comment at city council meetings. Just show up. When the mayor asks for public comment on a particular agenda item, you must come to the podium and address your comments to the mayor. You can’t address or ask questions of any alderman, except through the mayor.
There is no time limit for comments, but as Richard S. Drake, former chair of the Telecommunications Board, says, embrace the sound byte. “Brevity is next to godliness.”
So what do you do if you have a problem or suggestion that you want the city to consider? Say you’d like to see a city ordinance that would allow you to keep chickens in your backyard or maybe you think the city should do away with the noise ordinance?
First, do a little research. Contact the city clerk to find out if your issue is being dealt with in one of the city committees or departments, such as planning or parks and recreation. If it’s not, then contact your alderman. He or she may first direct you to one of the city divisions or commissions or he or she may submit that item to the city clerk to be placed on the agenda. It takes about two weeks from the time an agenda item is submitted to the city clerk until it is placed on the agenda.
This is just a basic primer in the workings of Fayetteville’s city bureaucracy. There are many more issues that an involved citizen may run into. Fortunately, you don’t have to figure it out on your own. The city’s Web site contains most of the information you need to get involved. When you can’t find what you need, City Clerk Sondra Smith can answer questions and steer you in the right direction.
“It’s important that people not be passive citizens and instead, take part in their town’s very important decisions,” Alexander said. “A community, to be a place that feels good and works right, needs to have residents who are able to look across City Hall, or the square, or the town center or the library and see familiar faces who have pitched in to build the town together.”
Where to find it:
Access Fayetteville- www.accessfayetteville.org
Alderman Contact Info- www.accessfayetteville.org/government/city_council/index.cfm
Fayetteville Forward & Community Media Summit
Two events are happening this week in Fayetteville, that will allow you to become more active in the community. The Fayetteville Forward economic development workshops and the Community Media Summit.
Citizens can help city leaders form an economic plan for Fayetteville and create a “vision for the future,” by being part of Fayetteville Forward organized by the city. Those who want to participate can attend sessions on Tuesday or April 2 or April 3 and the final session on April 4. Here is the schedule:
Discover and Dream
Tuesday: 6 to 9 p.m. at the Fayetteville Town Center
April 2: 6 to 9 p.m. at the Fayetteville Town Center
April 3: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the University of Arkansas Global Campus
Final Session: Design and Deploy
April 4: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the UA Global Campus
For information go to: www.fayettevilleforward.accessfayetteville.org.
Community Media Summit
When & Where: Friday and Saturday at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in downtown Fayetteville
The Community Media Summit will bring together community media makers, artists, activists and advocates to begin a dialogue about how community media will thrive and be a source of news, ideas and inspiration.
“Our goal is to create a networking and educational event involving community media and anyone who values free speech, localism, inclusion, diversity, creativity and media literacy,” said Jori Costello, Outreach Specialist for Community Access Television.
Events include a workshop with Paper Tiger TV of New York, a talk by Charles Benton of the Benton Foundation, workshops and panels and a trade show.
For information go to: http://summit.catfayetteville.org