free hit counter code One SoCal Green: How to Get Appointed: Primer, Part II

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

How to Get Appointed: Primer, Part II

In a prior post it was suggested that Greens need to become active in their communities -- or rather, active within the governments in their communities, in other than elected positions. This, I suggested, would influence policy at the most useful level, train Green community members in the nuances of actual governance, and introduce Greens to their neighbors as effective leaders in non-electoral (but governmental) settings.

This long winded post is a consideration of some of the ways to participate in public meetings, including some basic thoughts on how to get oneself appointed to various committees and commissions.

How does one penetrate the political fog that surrounds those positions and get oneself appointed? Read on!

Be Active!

Be out in the community, attending public meetings, providing community input, helping craft solutions.

Most cities these days have myriad meetings for residents and other stakeholders before making major policy decisions, or in the process of creating Environmental Impact Reports for major projects by both government and private contractors.

Go to the meetings. Speak up. Sign in.

When the next round of meetings comes up on a certain project, or a certain type of project, you may get an email or snail mail directly inviting you to attend. Congratulations! You are now a recognized community activist or stakeholder.

What good is going to these (very often boring) meetings? There is a threefold benefit:

1. Your voice is heard: A rational voice in favor of sustainable options is important, a thoughful voice against options that are not supportable from a social or environmental perspective. Both need to be part of the record.

2. You are educated: At these meetings you learn a lot about how to craft a technically and legally adequate alternative option that is also an appropriate policy or construction approach, or legally effective way to hold private developers to greener standards. You also learn who the local powers are really, and what it takes to sway them.

3. You are seen, and remembered: Your rational, thoughtful, articulate expression and help with problem solving to achieve a more sustainable and just community will be noted by city professional staff, and, if you are at City Council meetings too, by the elected officials. Remember it is elected officials who appoint folks, sometimes with suggestions from constituents and even City or developer staff.

Politics, as usual.

Some of the appointment game comes down to old fashioned "money and connections" politics. In a very large city (like Los Angeles) with some very powerful commissions, getting appointed can be a little harder, and can be based on access as a result of pure political clout.

Most of us do not have the cash to be players at this level, and in any case it is probably distasteful to most Greens to buy access. But Greens are great at volunteering during elections, at hosting coffees and the like. And in non-partisan local elections, especially, there is a great deal of party-line crossing based on issues. It may mean that one has to choose between supporting an openly Green candidate versus a green-friendly candidate who is a front runner; that choice is left to your own conscience. But in a race with no avowed Green, many non-partisan candidates are interested in your issues strongly.

Your efforts on behalf of a candidate create a chance to become known to the candidate and the candidate's advisors. It also helps you understand the candidate's issues, and be in a stronger position to represent -- or modify -- the ideals of a new council member later.

Yes, I said modify. Many Councilmembers are open to your opinion as a commissioner, and will discuss things at length to help them come to the best conclusion for your community.

Community Events: Picnics and Pancake Breakfasts

Again, to be a known quantity to the folks doing the appointing, it can be helpful to be involved in community events. Most cities have Earth Day events in parks, with local politicos in attendance, enjoying the day and chatting up constituents. Earth Day is especially appealing to Greens, for obvious reasons.

But there are many many other non-political events, too, and it can be important to be in attendance there also. Picnics, evening concerts, fairs, openings, dedications and pancake breakfasts all abound. If you chat with city staffers and make low key, effective -- and not incidentally sustainable -- suggestions, or even chat with electeds in an informal setting, you are establishing your reputation for thoughtful, helpful discourse.

These events can also be an opportunity to connect with electeds as people, not as elected representatives. Again, this is especially true in more modest cities, where "elected official" is often not a full time job.

Such interactions can also, frankly, be helpful to you in evaluating candidates on a level you may have only imagined. One year, a would-be Council Member arrived at our neighborhood association picnic on a bike with his two children in a bike trailer. Although his opponent was a progressive union official and former President of the Neighborhood Association, that chance meeting and conversation with the bike-riding candidate cemented my belief in this otherwise conservative-looking fellow as an excellent council member.

Have To Buy A Ticket To Win

Rarely will anyone spontaneously ask you to serve on a commission. If they do, you should be writing this advice not reading it. In general, you have to apply. (Timing can be key, however. See below.) Different commissions have different technical requirements to be appointed, which should be observed. (But note: evaluate your own qualifications carefully; a decade of activism in an area may make you eminently qualified, even if you think you lack paper credentials like degrees in a specialty area!).

The application forms are often available online, along with lists of commissions. Some commissions require financial disclosure forms, some do not. Although an official application is almost always required, rarely will a bare application dropped into the city hopper result in an appointment.

Get Appointed, Then Apply !?!

There is a lot of groundwork to be done before making an application. Indeed, although I am about to be appointed, tonight, to my third city commission in 10 years (and have served on or chaired a dozen city working groups, committees or steering committees), I have never applied to a commission position until it was determined that someone would like to appoint me!

Of course there should be an opening on the commission to which you wish to be appointed, or an opening which may come open in the near future. The trick is that commission appointments may involve a certain degree of personal relationship between the commissioner and the appointing official -- it is never helpful to complain about a commissioner and ask to replace him, for example. It is also helpful to suss out which commission appointments might be coming open but for which there is already someone in mind.

The best way to start the process, to my mind, is to simply bring it up in casual conversation with the elected or the elected's field representative. Bring up your interest in being active in the community. Mention how well something you have participated in worked out, or how you look forward to working on a solution to an existing problem. Mention that if there were any commission appointments coming available, you would be interested in serving in that way too, maybe even on the (blank) commission, where you have the most experience.

Don't look for an answer at that point, although you may get one. Something temporizing, or something letting you down slowly is far more likely. That is to be expected -- and should be met with equanimity on your part, with a low key "well, keep me in mind won't you?" For you have now done the hard work: Broached the subject of your interest.

You may have also gotten valuable information. "Well, you know Helen on the Parks Commission was just appointed last year, and has three years on her term to go," or something similar. That tells you who to work with on these issues, but also identifies the possible timetable for expressing interest again.

Track the Commission

Track the doings of the commission you are interested in serving on. Be familiar with the players and the issues; show up once or twice on issues of interest to you. Don't dog the commission. But you would be expected to be conversant with the issues if appointed, and reading minutes and reports is an excellent way to do that ahead of time.

In addition, sometimes commissioner's "retire" or move on -- and will recommend a replacement to the appointing official. I have done this; I have seen other commissioners do so. If a current commissioner recommends you, it can save the appointing person the trouble of finding a qualified person with a similar political agenda.

Be Reasonable

Throughout this Appointment Primer I have deliberately mentioned your thoughtful, helpful input on issues, your willingness to help craft solutions to problems, your efforts to create community consensus even if your ideal solution is not going to be adopted. I did this deliberately, because this is what governing -- and commission service -- entails.

Greens, as a rule, are people who are outsiders to much of "regular" society. If you are a registered Green you have taken a social step that many who share your beliefs are unable to bring themselves to do. If you have come to the place where a just, sustainable world is a key motivator for how you live your life, you are ahead of most people. If you have given up on the Dempublican / Republicrat system, the odds are fair that you are also not part of other standard institutions.

In part because of this outsider status, in part because we see the urgency of a Green approach to our community life, Greens are often passionate to the point of belligerence about their key issues. In part because most Greens have not been a part of the government before, they are also not conversant with techniques to communicate a political message and have a useful impact on political decision makers.

Most Greens are familiar with the tactics of pressure, and protest. Of mass movements and media attracting stunts. These are outsider techniques. They work, but only somewhat. It is better to be the insider, pushing for new ideas.

Most Greens are familiar with the tactic of complaint, and the level of frustration that can arise when leaders do the wrong thing anyway. Mere complaint, however, without presentation of effective alternatives, is another outsider technique. As a future commissisoner, one is asking to be part of the government, not part of a mass movement opposed to it; while participating in meetings and other opportunities, one is practicing governance of all members of the community, of consensus building, if you will, including governance of those most strongly opposed to one's own positions. This calls for a different approach than protest and complaint.

(Even if one is not angling for a commission appointment, it turns out that the thoughtful, reasoned approach to issues often is more effective than starting with impassioned speeches, name calling, sign carrying, overflow crowds of chanting supporters or the like. )

Participation in local governance puts Green ideas into the system, making the job of activist Greens easier; educates local Greens on actual governance, something most of us lack; and exposes Green leaders as community leaders, who may well be considered favorably in future partisan elections. Grassroots democracy starts with grassroots governance. It starts with you.

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