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civic_engagement_1.jpgLocal governments provide many opportunities for individuals to directly participate in decisions and in the delivery of programs and services.

Laws requiring transparency in decision-making, sometimes called “sunshine laws,” require local governments to open their meetings to members of the public and to allow any person to address the public body. Michigan’s Open Meetings Act provides a framework for the public to address governmental entities, consistent with rules adopted by the public body. The Freedom of Information Act allows individuals to inspect and obtain copies of public documents, again according to rules and procedures provided for in the act.

The Citizens Research Council of Michigan is an outstanding source of information helpful to people who want to know more about state and local government and important current policy issues. The CRC’s first executive director, Lent Upson, emphasized that, the right to criticize government is also an obligation to know what you are talking about. Local governments have an obligation to inform their residents about important issues, so many offer websites on which current information on local issues are posted, as well as to inform the public how to contact local officials to obtain additional information. Unfortunately, in rural Michigan there are still many areas were broadband internet connectivity is not available and that limitation prevents many rural communities from taking advantage of social networking and web-based communications. Many communities provide newsletters to keep their residents informed.

Many public bodies welcome stakeholders to participate in advisory committees and there are opportunities for individuals to be appointed to various boards and commissions that are empowered by law to make binding decisions. Examples include boards of review that hear appeals of property valuation determines made by the local governments property tax assessor; planning commissions that develop a comprehensive community growth plan and make zoning decisions on land uses consistent with that plan; and various other statutory boards and commissions such as a zoning board of appeals, salary and compensation commission, historical commission, or downtown development authority. Individuals can influence some local government decisions when state law provides that a decision is subject to referendum, which is the right to circulate a petition to have a government decision be submitted to the voters at an election.

There are also some limited opportunities in state law for electors, registered voters or property owners to submit petitions to initiate a decision not previously acted on by a governing body. And, of course, voting at elections is a fundamental right to participate in the democratic process. Some people contend that voting is not only a right, but an obligation. While the outcome of any lawful election is binding, many people would agree that when a large number of people vote the outcome is more likely to reflect the true will of the people. Civic engagement also includes the opportunity to run for public office. Local communities vary in the level of competition for seats on elective boards and commissions.

In townships, interested registered voters can run for the township board that governs the overall township operations, or the library board or park commission that oversees narrower functions, if one has been established. Some townships still have constables, an elective office with limited law enforcement responsibilities. Most local governments also offer volunteer opportunities that are either short-term or longer term engagements to assist in the direct delivery of programs and services.

One of the most valuable volunteer experiences is service on the local government’s fire department. Larger local governments generally do not have volunteers involved in their fire departments, but smaller entities augment their career fire fighters or rely entirely on persons who respond to emergencies when summoned by radios or pagers. State law requires extensive training prior to engaging in fire suppression activities. Some communities pay their “first responders” on a per call basis, but others still operate on a non-compensated, strictly voluntary basis.

Local governments also offer shorter term volunteer opportunities such as park and cemetery beautification projects, recycling or clean-up days, or volunteering at festivals and holiday celebrations.