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5 Ways to Effectively Monitor Activities of City Council Meetings

Five approaches to monitoring local government meetings, ranked by comprehensiveness, cost, and speed.

Monitoring city council

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To effectively minimize the risk of policy change and maximize the opportunities that come up in a city council agenda or local government proceedings, you need to develop a regular system for staying informed about the discussions that are happening—in as close to real-time as possible.

Your system needs to be comprehensive—covering every committee in your target communities, and if possible, the neighboring ones as well.

It also needs to be fast.

Local government moves quickly. An ordinance can go from idea to law in a matter of weeks, or sometimes days. When you find a mention of a new policy that threatens your business or industry in a city council meeting schedule, you will often need to be able to respond within a day or two to have an impact on the elected body’s ultimate decision.

In this article, we will share five different approaches to monitoring local government meetings, and rank them on comprehensiveness, cost, and speed.

Use Local Government Monitoring Software

The best way to stay on top of what’s happening in local government is to use software designed for this purpose. We built Curate because there was no other tool available for government affairs professionals to effectively track activities in nearly every local government entity. Most other products are limited to major metropolitan areas.

Since this is our realm, we created an entire guide looking at this and other distinctions you should look for when buying local legislative tracking software.

But in a nutshell, a high-quality local government monitoring software service will:

  • Cover your target communities
  • Send you alerts about your key topics, without overwhelming you with irrelevant information
  • Easily allow you to view alerts in the full context of the meeting notes or agenda
  • Have a research function to see the full history of legislation and attitudes about topics most important to you

The advantage of using software designed for tracking local government discussions is that you can get alerts whenever relevant discussions related to your advocacy priorities happen in local government. No matter what council, commission, or committee they appear in.

You don’t have to remember to go looking for discussions. And with a variety of report filtering options, you can also get very specific about which topics and communities you want to track within a larger region.

This is especially helpful in densely populated areas where a public affairs team might split one county into eight or nine separate coverage areas of 10 to 15 cities each.

  • Pros: Comprehensive, fast, enhances existing processes
  • Cons: It’s not free, but it’s affordable

Hire a Lobbyist or Lobbying Firm

If you don’t have an internal public affairs team, or your team is too small to effectively monitor the issues that are important to you, you can hire a lobbyist or lobbying firm to monitor local government for you and advocate on your behalf.

This is more commonly available at the state and national government level, but recently more firms have started to specialize in lobbying local government.

Make sure you partner with a company that has people on the ground in your region and has direct experience with the units of government you need to monitor because no two cities operate in the same way.

  • Pros: For a limited geographic region, an outside lobbying firm can provide comprehensive monitoring in a reliably timely manner
  • Cons: This is the most expensive option, and if you need to monitor issues across multiple states, it’s usually prohibitively expensive

Manually Check City Council Meeting Minutes and Agendas

If you are only tracking a couple of cities or counties, it’s possible to keep track of almost everything that happens by tracking it manually.

First, make a comprehensive list of all of the communities you need to cover and don’t forget that each community might have multiple relevant committees, such as the Plan Commission, Finance Committee, Parks Board, etc.

Find the official government websites where each committee posts its meeting minutes, agendas, and other public notices, and bookmark them. If possible, sign up for email alerts whenever a new document is posted. Sometimes you’ll find a subscribe button directly on the page, and other times, you’ll have to email the city clerk and ask to be added to the distribution list for each committee.

It’s a good idea to create a filter in your email program to collect all of the documents you get into one folder so that it doesn’t overwhelm your inbox. Then, each day, set aside time to review all of the emails and check each of the bookmarked websites for updates.

  • Pros: If you’re only tracking a few cities, this option can be relatively affordable and comprehensive. It can be fast if you always read all of the documents on a daily basis, but it’s possible to miss issues if you’re only reading weekly or worse, monthly.
  • Cons: The biggest problem with this option is that there is no filtering out irrelevant information. Until you read or scan each document, you don’t know if it contains a discussion of your key topics. Because of this, it’s so time-consuming that it can end up being more expensive than hiring a software vendor if your team devotes the amount of hours they would need to spend to be sure they’re being comprehensive. In reality, most teams that use this manual method miss more issues than they catch, or only catch issues after they have come to a vote.

Develop Relationships with Elected Officials and Staff

Building relationships with the key players in your community is a necessary part of any local government affairs job.

When you encounter a threat or opportunity in a proposed local ordinance or discussion, your relationships are often what will allow you to have the greatest influence over the outcome.

While local lobbying is a much less formal affair than state and federal lobbying, it is still regulated in many cities. We break down the differences between local lobbying and state and federal lobbying in this guide.

In general, if you’re representing yourself, you can meet with officials without doing any paperwork. If you’re paid to represent others, you need to be careful about regulations.

No matter what, don’t buy elected officials food, drinks, or any other gifts or favors. To establish trust and be seen as a resource for local officials, you should always aim to be real, be responsive, and be helpful.

Some government affairs teams rely almost exclusively on the relationships that they have built with local elected officials and staff members to keep them informed about local policy issues. We don’t recommend relying on your network as your only source of civic intelligence. No matter how close you feel to local officials, they have no obligation to give you a heads up about issues that might affect you.

  • Pros: Building relationships with local officials is part of the government affairs job, so it doesn’t add the expense of software or additional time. Relationships give you the opportunity to build goodwill, educate, and influence local officials, and talking to local officials is a great way to find out what they’re thinking about before they put a proposal on an agenda.
  • Cons: It’s not a comprehensive, reliable, or fast way to stay in the know. If your friends in local government forget to email you or ask for your input (or intentionally don’t contact you), you’re left totally in the dark. Also, it’s hard to develop real relationships at scale. What if you need to track 25 communities, with 5 to 10 council members each?

Use Google Searches and Google Alerts

Google Alerts can be helpful for keeping track of issues when they are mentioned in the news. It can also help you manage your reputation if you set up alerts for your organization’s name.

However, news coverage of local government is getting sparser and sparser. Many committees within a community receive no news coverage at all. Unfortunately, Google doesn’t have the ability to search most city council agendas and minutes.

  • Pros: It’s free, and you only have to read the stories that show up in your email. Google can catch news stories from small news outlets that you don’t normally check, so it can be more effective than only reading your local newspaper.
  • Cons: It’s not comprehensive, reliable, or fast. It’s highly likely that there’s absolutely no news coverage of the things that could really threaten your industry, so you’re going to miss most of the discussions, and many of the smaller items on an agenda are only reported about after a meeting happens, so you’ll miss the opportunity to participate in the discussion.

Our Recommendation for Monitoring Local Government Discussions

Using local monitoring software is the only option that is truly comprehensive, fast, and affordable. With an option like Curate, you can get alerts in almost real-time. And while it is an expense that needs to be factored into your software budget, when you compare it to the financial risk of not monitoring, it’s a no-brainer.

Curate local government monitoring software provides the most comprehensive, trusted, and timely resource of actionable insights from every municipal organization across the country.

Schedule a meeting with our sales team to see Curate in action.

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