Commentary: Do you know how to make local government work for you?

John Brock

Your city council and mayor were elected to represent your interests in the efficient operation of the city. They work for you.

They represent the entire city and respond to the will of the people.

Contact and communication with them is vital for any representative form of government to function appropriately.

All municipalities maintain websites to make contacting the right department easy. If you have a specific question or concern, contact the appropriate city department for help and assistance.

These may include:

  • Building permits and inspections
  • Suspicious activity you see
  • Reporting potholes and blocked catch basins
  • Downed trees or power lines
  • Abandoned vehicles
  • Illegal dumping
  • Speeding

If you have an opinion on a policy issue, your city officials want to hear from you. Your idea will be considered. If a plurality exists that supports your idea, the city will take it up.
These may include:

  • Residential, commercial, and mixed use Zoning
  • Tree preservation and removal
  • Parks and greenspace acquisition
  • Stormwater and sanitary sewer
  • Streets and sidewalks
  • Police, fire and emergency services
  • Tax rates and levies to fund government operations

If your policy idea doesn’t gain traction, consider bringing the issue to a larger audience and build support for your idea. Organize a coalition of citizens that share your concern. Be respectful, accurate, open and complete.

These may include:

  • Letter to the editor in your local newspaper
  • Local social media
  • Neighborhood newsletters and community groups
  • Present your idea and support at a city council meeting

Another option is to be more directly involved

  • Join a planning commission, school board, or hospital advisory board
  • Support a new candidate that holds your values
  • Run for elected office yourself

— By John Brock

John Brock is a member of the Woodway Town Council. He has also served on the Woodway Planning Commission.

  1. Thank you for posting this info. Civic engagement is the way to make our government,at all levels, work for us. It is critical.

  2. Thanks Mr. Brock. I wish such were true in Edmonds. I posted the following on MEN 8 days ago:

    I greatly appreciate the possibilities of a nonpartisan City government. I believe we should be able to all work together to pursue good government. I believe it better to be involved than to be apolitical. I understand that many people have truly little time to be involved and that some have little interest.

    I believe wise City officials engage citizens early who are passionate about an issue that involves City government. My experience has too often been the opposite – that some citizen involvement is not truly welcomed.

    For example, I email City Officials, including our Mayors, frequently. I have done so for many years. The last email response I received from an Edmonds Mayor was in March of 2012. To me, this is a sign of a dysfunctional City Government…a City Government that does not welcome all its citizens.

    On Friday July 9th I emailed City Council an email about the Emergency Ordinance unanimous vote requirement. The email started: “Please read this email in full and confirm via email back to me that you have read it. Thank you.”

    Only Councilmember Distelhorst responded. All he said was “Received, just FYI”

    I responded on July 12th and concluded my response as follows:

    “My hope as a citizen is that a councilmember reading my email would want to discuss the contents of the email with the constituent who prepared it. I hope you will consider setting up a time to discuss this with me. Thank you.”

    I received no response about setting up a time to meet and haven’t received a single confirmation from a Councilmember that they have read my July 9th email.

    My July 9th email included discussion of a Code error that has existed since 1985 and discussed assorted problems with the 16 Emergency Ordinances voted on by Council between March 22, 2020 and March 2, 2021.

    I continue to believe we can do much, much better. I am not willing to give up that hope yet.

  3. The beginning of the article encourages me to engage with my city council, but the rest specifically guides me to city “officials”- is that the council or all of the departments/staff listed on the website? So which items would I bring to council?

  4. Lots of good ideas here. Mostly be careful who you vote for, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

  5. Chris and Ken
    Thank you for your excellent comments and questions. Let’s use the example of road potholes…
    Specific problem:
    You have discovered a pothole. Contact your Public Works Department or Director and let them know. Public Works are chronically short funded and short staffed. They check the roads as often as they can but might miss a pothole or two. Getting a head’s up is a huge help. Then give them time to get the repair into their busy schedules.
    Policy question:
    Let’s say you have a problem with how the City prioritizes pothole repair. This is a policy question. Contact a Council member or Mayor with your concerns. This will likely be brought up in a council meeting during Council reports. It will probably be added to a future meeting agenda for discussion and possible action.
    Washington State Law:
    Let’s say a pothole ordinance is currently before the council. You sent a letter to your council member. They will be grateful for it, but can’t discuss it because of Washington State public record disclosure laws. They can’t even legally discuss it with more than one other council member.
    Woodway has 5 council members. I can talk to one other council member about an issue. I cannot talk to two, even at different times (serial meeting), because that would constitute a quorum (3 out of 5), and the State Public Record laws require the issue be included in a meeting agenda and discussed in a public meeting.
    Many people make the mistake that when a council member does not engage, that they don’t care. Nothing could be farther from the truth! They are restricted by law.
    My guess is this is exactly what happened with your communication with Councilman Distelhorst. His hands are tied because it’s an open issue.
    What to do?
    Monitor the meeting agendas. Show up and comment. See how the process works! Then you’ll know What was decided and How.
    Get involved!

  6. While living in Edmonds, what I have seen work, is the larger audience receiving media coverage, protesting the Elected Officials on policy decisions. This is an example of the 2nd set of the four bullet points, John Brock points out in the LTE.

    It will take a shift in government dynamics of true representation to improve accountability, action, and responsiveness. Neighborhood representation creates an environment where Council Members advocate for their respective constituents. This brings out healthy competition, debate, collaboration… facts are brought to light.

    A potential reason why Edmonds politics hasn’t changed in decades – It may be that the ones who control the power do not want to give it up and so there is no impetus to neighborhood representation. Those who live in the Edmonds more affluent areas may need to be the ones to initiate a larger audience to create the change.

    This reminds me of historical discourse on gradually allowing different demographics to read, constitutional debate on how representation would work, the Civil War… These examples have to do with conversation, trust, power, equality, and change. Until there is a structural shift in Edmonds Government, just as in the examples, there will be tension, whispers behind the scenes, public outcries, stifled frustration, distrust, puppeteers, and inequality.

    As in the examples, change is not an easy decision; it comes with risk, compromise, sometimes force and usually pain. Eventually comes growth, opportunity and expanded fortune. Experimenting with the idea of the Edmonds Haves and Not-So-Muches, would I keep the status quo? In historical cases I cannot say what position I would have taken on each issue. Sometimes I ponder being in different roles (on the continuum of enslaved black woman to elite wealthy male) in time periods regarding reading, representation, and union.

    At Present – Willingness to give up power AND to make a movement to give it to others, or even to vote in favor of it? – for representation by neighborhood?

  7. Great comment Lori. I 100% agree with you on this. Once elected under this antiquated Strong Mayor/Weak Council system we have, there is no incentive whatsoever to really listen to the constituents until the next election rolls around. Then the promises are made and quickly forgotten after the election.

    What is needed is neighborhood or district elected officials who’s jobs depend on having regular meetings with and input from their constituents. These need to be full time jobs worth having financially and include some administrative power as well as power of the purse. The Mayor needs to become a figure head and the power of running the city needs to be placed in the hands of the Council which hires a city manager who has no political ambitions – just expertise in getting the needed things done in any city.

    What we really need are two or three currently elected at large Council people who are willing to advocate for and sponsor the petitions to get this proposed change on a city wide ballot. People willing to stand up to a power seeking and grabbing Mayor who will fight this tooth and nail. I’m not referring to Nelson, I’m referring to anyone who seeks the Mayoral position now or in the future. As constituted our Mayoral position is not going to attract non-controlling type individuals.

    As for a Woodway Councilman telling me how to relate to my city officials, I’ll take a pass. Woodway’s biggest concern is making sure Edmonds and Shoreline keep taking care of them at a very reasonable cost. The first thing a new type Edmonds city government should do is tell Woodway to annex in to be a real part of us, or good luck being a city on your own. This is the biggest fear there is in Woodway and that’s the real reason Mr. Brock is telling us how to relate to our city government right now.

  8. I want to make it clear that I have nothing personally against Mr. Brock or the Woodway folks in general but I am against the double standard they have set for themselves in relation to others. Woodway is not a city, it’s two neighborhoods located next to Edmonds that was formed to avoid Edmonds’ zoning and Edmonds’ taxes to a certain extent. They are actually neighborhoods with strong HOA provisions. Go back and look at the history of the birth of Woodway as a “city.” Basically the Woodway Park part of Woodway had to lower it’s large parcel and tree protection standards a bit to get enough people to vote with them to petition for city hood and thereby avoid being annexed into Edmonds. “Woodway” was sold to people living directly adjacent to the Woodway Park Preserve on the basis of them getting lower taxes in return for their support. Woodway Park had to do this to get enough potential citizens to even qualify as a small city. If Woodway city couldn’t get police protection from Edmonds and Fire protection from Shoreline, they would be begging to become part of one of those cities or begging the County for sweet contracts for police and fire protection.

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