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Who Says You Can’t Fight City Hall?


March 6, 2013 by Byron Katsuyama
Category: Public Participation

Who Says You Can’t Fight City Hall?

urban myth (plural urban myths)

  1. A widely circulated story, often believed to be true by the teller, but usually distorted, exaggerated or fabricated for sensational effect …. (Wiktionary.org)

We have all heard the expression, “You can’t fight city hall.” Maybe we don’t hear it exactly in these terms always, but the sentiment is out there. At its heart, it expresses a deeply cynical view about the ability of average citizens to have a say and an impact on the policy decisions made by their local governments. Indeed, it’s part of a more widely held view that government institutions, at all levels, are somehow not on the side of their citizens, have their own agendas, or are otherwise indifferent and, therefore, cannot be trusted.

But, I would argue, especially in the case of local governments, that statements like these have gone unchallenged for far too long. They are part of an ongoing urban myth, just like our friends at Wiktionary.org have defined it: “...widely circulated...often believed to be true by the teller, but usually distorted, exaggerated or fabricated for sensational effect...”

The simple fact is that many citizens can and regularly do avail themselves of the opportunities to participate in their local government and, more importantly, are able, through their actions, to have real impacts on the outcomes of the policy debates that go on all the time in city halls and county courthouses. These people act either as volunteer members of boards and commissions, as members of ad hoc citizen advisory groups, or as individuals who attend regular meetings and/or write to their elected representatives. Citizen activists can also effectively influence events by writing op-ed pieces in their local newspapers or by taking the time to add to the discussion through a local blog or some other type of community-oriented website. By the way, most local government officials I know do regularly follow and read all types of local news sources, so these voices are usually heard even if they are not immediately or directly acknowledged.

The great irony, however, is that citizen activists in most cities and counties are so few in number compared to the general population, that their impact on any given issue has the potential to be quite large and completely disproportionate to their small numbers. It’s no secret that most of the regular meetings held by city and county governing bodies and their appointed boards and commissions are usually sparsely attended. What this means for those few motivated citizens who do attend, is that they are often the only ones whose voices are heard during the public comment periods of their local governing body’s regular meetings. Even attendance at public hearings where community input is actively sought is usually not much greater than the attendance at regular meetings, so the same dynamic often plays out—the motivated few who show up become the voice of the public. Far from being unable to “fight” city hall,  these citizens have figured out that they can frequently play a significant role in the discussions that lead directly to the formulation of policy in their communities.

As a member of Kirkland’s Planning Commission for the past eight years, I have witnessed many occasions where individuals, particularly those with special expertise, who took the time to speak to the commission and submit timely and well-reasoned comments have had a direct impact on the outcomes of the policy recommendations that we ultimately passed on to the city council. In many instances, these individuals have either been alone in their attendance or have shared the microphone with just two or three others. Even those activists (and every community has them) who seem to be perpetually opposed to every new proposal also manage to have an impact, either by keeping city officials on their toes or by occasionally hitting the mark with their persistent, if sometimes tiresome, criticisms.

So, at least in my experience, you really can “fight” city hall, mostly by joining them to express your views, and discuss and debate the issues. What we need are more people who are willing to do just that. The tougher “fights”  are the ones we need to wage against urban myths like these and the cynicism and distrust, so pervasive these days, that give rise to them.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Byron Katsuyama

Byron began work at the Center as a Research Assistant in July 1978. He holds a B.A. degree in Political Science from the University of Washington and an M.P.A. from the University of Washington's Evan’s School of Public Policy and Governance. After completing his M.P.A., Byron joined MRSC's consulting staff as a Public Policy and Management Consultant concentrating on municipal administration and policy analysis. Byron is responsible for research in such areas as emerging local government issues, best practices, strategic planning, performance measurement, and local government management. In addition to his consulting duties, Byron also maintains the "Focus" section of MRSC's website and is editor of our "In Focus" and "Ask MRSC" e-newsletters. He also coordinates our HR, Planning, Finance, Government Performance, and Council/Commission Advisors. In his own community of Kirkland, Byron also served for eight years as a member of the city's planning commission. Byron is a member of the Washington City/County Management Association (WCMA) and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA).

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