Government 101: How to get, and stay, involved
LAHARPE — An engaged citizenry is necessary for communities to survive in today’s America, Megan Gilliland contends.
“If more people are involved in local government, we’re going to have more trust,” said Gilliland, a communications and education manager for the League of Kansas Municipalities. “We believe cities are able to survive, thrive and grow when residents are engaged and participate in the decision-making process.”
Participation isn’t limited to running for city council, she added. It can come through simple conversations with neighbors, volunteering for civic events or simply attending functions around town.
Gilliland spoke Tuesday to a group of about 20 residents from across Allen and Bourbon counties as part of a “Local Government For Newbies” session.
The two-hour workshop covered the basics of how a city government functions and how residents can be more involved in their communities.
The event was co-sponsored by LKM and Thrive Allen County, courtesy of a Healthy Communities Grant from the Kansas Health Foundation.
It’s the first of three such sessions planned for LaHarpe within the next six months.
If the reception is positive enough — early responses from attendees certainly were — Gilliland hopes to create a template to take to other communities across the state.
She was assisted with Wednesday’s exercise with Davianna Humble, a management intern and masters of public administration graduate student at the University of Kansas, and Damaris Kunkler, director of community engagement at Thrive.
“Citizens, residents, don’t believe the impact they can have on their local community,” Humble said.
GILLILAND started with the basics — the definition of a city, its basic functions and how it’s governed — before delving into more advanced topics, such as open meetings laws, avoiding conflicts of interest and governmental ethics.
She offered factors to consider for those interested in running for public office.
“Why do you want to run?” she asked. “What issues are important to you, your family, your neighborhood? The best government officials run because they care about their community.”
Research your hometown before filing, she suggested. Become knowledgeable about issues facing a community.
Is running for office a good fit for your lifestyle? Do you have time? Can you raise money for a campaign? Is your family on board? Do you have potential conflicts of interest?
“Get to the why,” she said. “It’s so important. … There’s nothing worse than somebody who over-promises and under-commits.”
Gilliland touched on the mechanisms to filing for office — where and when to file, as well as a statement that lists your financial and ownership interests necessary to prevent an elected official from dealing with conflicts of interest.
She also offered tips on how to campaign — state your ideas, your concerns and why you’re running.
Most newcomers enter office with only a partial understanding of their roles and responsibilities, she said.
THE EVENING culminated with a budgeting exercise, in which three departments — public works, judiciary and fire/EMS — requesting a combined $3.5 million from a local governing body. The problem, Humble explained, is the city has only $3 million in its coffers.
The attendees split into four factions: one for each department, the fourth for the governing body. Each department had two minutes to present their case as to why their budgets needed to be fully funded.
Public works representatives detailed their need for infrastructure improvements. The judiciary group was intent on piloting a rehabilitation program to reduce jail overcrowding. And the fire/EMS bunch detailed the need for new equipment and competitive wages.
In the end, the governing body, consisting of Humboldt City Administrator Cole Herder, Humboldt Councilwoman Sunny Shreve and Nick Reynolds, a Humboldt Union staffer, agreed to split the pain evenly.
The fire/EMS department had to do with $300,000 less than it requested, public works $200,000 less, and public works $50,000 — a combined $550,000.
Why cut $550,000 when only $500,000 needed to be pared?
To provide a $50,000 reserve fund, Herder responded, drawing an appreciative cheer from Gilliland.
“I like reserves,” she noted.
OTHER TOPICS included the ethics involved in being a public official — representatives must remember they are their on the public’s dime, and must keep the public’s interest at heart, Gilliland said.
Dealing with others is a must, she continued.
“You have to learn how to create consensus, and you have to learn to create a dialogue.”
She offered a few words of advice for anybody considering a bid for public office.
“It’s an exciting, challenging and humbling experience,” Gilliland said. “No other level of government offers the opportunity for more day-to-day contact with the electors, which is usually a blessing, and rarely a curse.”