How to Get Your Local On!

You’re alarmed about climate change and eager to take action, and you’ve heard that cities and counties have a big role in the fight for fossil divestment. They sure do! A number of cities and many counties have retirement funds for their employees; they hire professional managers to invest the funds from which employee pensions will be paid.

These funds are juicy divestment targets by themselves: Alameda County’s fund, for instance, has about $7 billion under management. Large cities like San Francisco ($20 billion) may establish and administer their own funds. Moreover, local governments may have influence at higher levels of government: city governments can pass resolutions and write letters to county and state governments, and they can weigh in on issues in forums such as the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). Local governments are also customers of banks and other companies, and as such their opinions, and their choices about where they do business, matter.

So how do you get involved in local government and encourage it to divest, move its money, and otherwise move forward to protect the climate (and, for that matter, act on other environmental issues in which local government has a policy role)? Some guidance on first steps follows.

Get to know your city council and/or county supervisors. The good news is that because they represent smaller constituencies, the members of these bodies tend to be more accessible than higher-level elected officials such as members of Congress. In smaller cities, they are likely to be your neighbors. Introduce yourself at public events; get to know them at candidate forums, and ask your neighbors about them.

Go to a council or supervisors’ meeting to get a better understanding of how these bodies function. These meetings are, except in limited circumstances, open to the public; agendas and minutes of past meetings will be available on your city’s website. Observing your council in action will add to your understanding of which councilperson(s) you might approach about divestment.

When you go to a meeting, take the opportunity to make an appropriate comment when you can. This is one way that your council members can get to know you and become aware that climate change is important to community members.

Investigate whether your city has an environmental advisory committee. My own city of Brisbane has such a citizens’ committee, and it’s been an invaluable route through which to bring issues like fossil fuel divestment before the City Council. For instance, the Brisbane Open Space and Ecology Committee as a body asked the Council to pass a resolution calling for CalPERS to divest from fossil fuels. As a committee request, it carried more weight with the Council than a request by an individual citizen might have.

If your city has a similar committee, consider taking your “ask” to its members before you go directly to the city council. If your city doesn’t have such a committee, consider asking your council to create one. As an example, here’s a link to the bylaws of Brisbane’s committee.

Request an in-person meeting with the councilperson or supervisor you’ve selected, either by yourself or with a smaller group of like-minded residents. Think carefully beforehand about your “ask.” A little research ahead of time can add a lot to your credibility, (e.g., it’s great to be able to say, “X number of cities in California have already passed resolutions to….”). If you’re going with a group, it’s a good idea to coordinate what you’ll say among yourselves before you meet with the council member.

Take with you a sample resolution or letter (many of these are available on the “local campaigns” section of the FFCA website). Tweaking a resolution that another city has already passed takes a lot less city staff time than starting from scratch.