In his first few months in office, Park City, Utah, Mayor Jack Thomas has heard from quite a few constituents. His office phone rings off the hook. Going out for lunch takes about twice as long as before, too, as he constantly fields concerns from residents who walk up. “If you want a quiet moment,” he jokes, “you’ve got to leave town.”
The small resort community is home to some of the nation’s more vocal residents. In a recent survey, 28 percent of city residents reported contacting elected officials to express their opinions and 37 percent said they had attended a local public meeting over a 12-month period.
Nationwide, though, citizen participation in local government remains abysmally low. The National Research Center (NRC), a firm that conducts citizen surveys for more than 200 communities, compiled data for Governing shedding light on the types of residents who are most active. Overall, only 19 percent of Americans recently surveyed contacted their local elected officials over a 12-month period, while about a quarter reported attending a public meeting.
In many city halls, extremists on either side of an issue dominate public hearings. Those who do show up at the sparsely attended meetings are often the same cast of characters week after week. But some public officials have found ways to reach a much wider segment of residents.
Park City’s Mayor Thomas said he’ll go door-to-door along the town’s main corridor to gauge resident sentiment about everything from new development projects to air quality and garbage pickup. “If you want to have a government that’s rooted in the community, you better start that way,” Thomas said. “It’s all about trust.”
NRC survey data identifies types of residents who are the most active or, in some cases, the least vocal. Individuals living in a community for more than 10 years, for example, are about three times more likely to attend public meetings and contact elected officials than new residents. Among racial groups, Asians tend to have the lowest participation rates. Low-income residents also aren’t as active as those earning six-figure incomes.
In general, residents often aren’t compelled to weigh in on an issue unless it negatively affects them, said Cheryl Hilvert of the International City/County Management Association. It’s for this reason that much of the citizen engagement in communities is confined to typical hot-button issues, such as planning and zoning meetings.
Many residents don’t think they have time to participate. Others, particularly newer residents with lower participation rates, may not know where or how to get involved, Hilvert said.
Survey data further suggests that younger residents aren’t inclined to speak up. Those under the age of 35 attend meetings and contact elected officials at far lower rates than those over 35. Hilvert suspects their busy lifestyles may have something to do with it, especially if they have children.
Connecting with these groups of residents requires stepping outside of city hall and meeting residents on their own turf. Park City officials say they’ve held meetings in school lunch rooms, performing arts centers and with local homeowners’ associations.
“To truly engage the community,” Hilvert said, “managers have to think broader about it than in the past.”
Some localities employ unconventional approaches to raise the level of citizen engagement. When the city of Rancho Cordova, Calif., debated permitting more residents to raise chickens on their properties last year, it launched an online Open Town Hall. More than 500 residents visited the interactive forum to make or review public statements. “It is noisy and smelly enough with pigeons, turkeys, feral cats, and untended dogs without adding chickens to the mix,” wrote one resident. The city drafted an ordinance reflecting citizen input, then emailed it to forum subscribers.
Outreach efforts through local media or civic organizations help further community involvement. Some residents also form Facebook groups or online petitions to promote their causes.
The city of Chanhassen, Minn., relied heavily on social media to connect with citizens when it confronted an issue that’s about as contentious as any local government can face: a proposal to build a new Walmart. The city posted regular updates on its Facebook page and uploaded all documents online. Laurie Hokkanen, the city’s assistant city manager, said residents continued hearing rumors even after the city rejected the company’s rezoning proposal. As a result, staff kept lines of communication open.
“A vote by the city council does not end the issue for residents who are invested in it,” Hokkanen said. “It’s important to tell people you appreciate their input.”
Across much of the country, citizens rarely voice their opinion to local governments. The National Research Center provided survey results from local jurisdictions throughout the country participating in the National Citizen Survey, collected between 2012 and earlier this year.
Two questions on the survey assessed how vocal citizens were in government. Survey respondents were asked if they had done the following in the last 12 months:
1) "Contacted [locality name] elected officials (in-person, phone, email or web) to express your opinion?"
- Yes: 19 percent
- No: 81 percent
2) "Attended a local public meeting?"
- Two times a week or more: 1 percent
- Two to four times a month: 1 percent
- Once a month or less: 22 percent
- Not at all: 76 percent
Reponses by Demographic Groups
|Age Group||Contacted elected officials||Attended local public meeting 2x week or more||Attended 2-4 local public meetings per month||Attended local public meetings once a month or less||Did not attend a local public meeting|
|18 to 24 years||7%||0%||1%||10%||89%|
|25 to 34 years||12%||0%||1%||13%||86%|
|35 to 44 years||17%||0%||1%||22%||76%|
|45 to 54 years||20%||1%||1%||26%||72%|
|55 to 64 years||25%||1%||2%||28%||69%|
|65 to 74 years||26%||1%||2%||30%||68%|
|75 years or older||22%||1%||2%||27%||71%|
|Race||Contacted elected officials||Attended local public meeting 2x week or more||Attended 2-4 local public meetings per month||Attended local public meetings once a month or less||Did not attend a local public meeting|
|American Indian or Alaskan Native||20%||1%||1%||24%||73%|
|Asian, Asian Indian or Pacific Islander||10%||0%||0%||16%||83%|
|Black or African American||22%||1%||2%||25%||73%|
|Length of Residency||Contacted elected officials||Attended local public meeting 2x week or more||Attended 2-4 local public meetings per month||Attended local public meetings once a month or less||Did not attend a local public meeting|
|Less than 2 years||7%||0%||0%||9%||90%|
|2 to 5 years||13%||0%||1%||16%||82%|
|6 to 10 years||18%||0%||1%||23%||76%|
|11 to 20 years||23%||1%||2%||27%||70%|
|More than 20 years||23%||1%||2%||28%||69%|
|Annual Income||Contacted elected officials||Attended local public meeting 2x week or more||Attended 2-4 local public meetings per month||Attended local public meetings once a month or less||Did not attend a local public meeting|
|Less than $25,000||16%||1%||1%||17%||82%|
|$25,000 to $49,999||18%||0%||1%||19%||79%|
|$50,000 to $99,999||18%||0%||1%||22%||76%|
|$100,000 to $149,999||20%||1%||2%||27%||70%|
|$150,000 or more||22%||1%||2%||28%||69%|