Learning how to fight city hall is a critical tool for many neighborhood associations, community non-profits, activists, and community development corporations. We hope you will use these skills as a last resort because maintaining a good relationship with your city, town, or village usually works better than engaging in a public fight.
But sometimes your neighborhood or viewpoint might not be treated fairly, city elected officials or staff might be stubborn or biased against you, or your elected people do not consider seriously a problem or a new proposal that you bring forth. That's when you must fight city hall.
Some people around the world reading this may think that we are going teach you literally how to fight city hall, but I assure you we are speaking figuratively.
If you found your way to this page as an individual, Step 1 is to find yourself an organization. Start one if you have to. Don't try to do it by yourself. If you are the lone repetitive voice, often you are labeled as a crank, which makes you less effective, not more influential.
If you exhaust personal face-to-face meetings, petitions, responsible and respectful use of social media, letters to the editor, speaking at council meetings, and so forth, and you decide you need to stand up and fight about an issue that is important to you, here are the steps.
As a note of caution, take into account the cultural context. Rural communities may be folksy and informal, suburbs may be oriented toward kids and their activities, and big cities may be business-like and competitive. In New York City, for instance, the habit is contentious meetings in the non-profit and public sectors, so if that is the culture, you may have adapt these hints. In Small Town USA, you have to be even more concerned about preserving friendships and working relationships.
But our generalizations about what works follow.
1. Use your most well-respected supporter as your only or first spokesperson. Keep the discourse civil, rational, and respectful, but state your opinions, and especially facts and evidence, assertively. Explain your case using photographs or video, logs of activity observed, eyewitness accounts, and plenty of examples. Teach all your supporters the facts as best you can, so that whether they speak at the meeting or not, their word of mouth and social media conversations are knowledgeable and well-prepared.
In a municipality that likes to keep meetings short and to the point, you may only be allowed one speaker, the speaking time may be limited, or you may simply be more persuasive if you keep your number of speakers low. Other cities, towns, and villages have different personalities, where the sheer number of speakers impresses decision makers. Find out beforehand which type of presentation is more likely to be successful.
2. By all means, bring a large crowd of emotional supporters to the meeting. While emotional, inflammatory, and accusatory statements or questions aren't how to fight city hall, you can bet that the most emotional people will exhibit the most expressive facial and body language too. Their postures will tell the story. Don't use them as your speakers though, if you can help it.
We find that an undercurrent of anger and frustration often is helpful in getting your point across, but make sure to convey forcefully that facts and reason are on your side.
The exception to using the rational folks, well-respected people, and good speakers as your representatives in a public hearing or comment period is when you have a rare eyewitness account that has surprise value. This is especially effective if the person is a sympathetic figure, and the damage to him or her was significant.
3. If you feel that city officials may not believe the problem is as severe as your neighborhood believes, come prepared with evidence. Cell phone quality video, still photos (preferably date and time stamped), or handwritten logs of activity will help you make the point. If you are complaining about litter, bring some along. Watch out not to make this overly repulsive though; a dead rat in a plastic bag won't win you too many friends.
4. Understanding how to fight city hall for money is especially important and a fairly unique circumstance. Many cities have been forced to make major cuts in services or eliminate grants altogether, and often neighborhood organizations are casualties.
If you need your funding reinstated, a small step toward learning about how to fundraise for yourself would be a good gesture.
In the case of funding cuts, be assertive in a way that acknowledges and even empathizes with the difficulties officials are facing. Know your own funding needs, and be able to explain the dollars and cents of the expense, as well as the possible savings if the city decides to run the program right. That is how to fight city hall in this instance.
5. In all cases, do your homework. Know exactly the city hall process and procedures you will face, and instruct your supporters to be mannerly--whatever that might mean in your community. Know the facts, laws, and numbers about your issue. Understand and recognize how cause and effect work in your type of neighborhood; if you don't really know much about this, keep searching and reading on this website until you feel comfortable with the relevant dynamics.
For additional tips and a different slant, you might want to look at our page on opposing a rezoning.
You might need to play slightly dirty outside the meetings, taking advantage of the captive audience if you are friends with the mayor's wife, for example. Informal conversations with friends who are in positions of power, or who have influence over decision makers, often yield results or compromises that are acceptable.
Wherever you are on the planet, however, we hope you don't make bribery, violence, or intimidation a part of your fight. Those practices lead to bad government now and in the future.
If the stakes are high enough and the government is wrong enough, sometimes you must be a little manipulative inside the meetings as well. But usually that's not how you win at local government relations.