Top Stories
October 20, 2018
link to facebook link to twitter

Why would anyone run for city council?

By: Irene Hilsendager
March 16, 2018

The city council for most cities is an elected legislative body with the authority to pass municipal ordinance, budgets, make some appropriations and set local tax rates in some cities. Although qualifications to become a city council member in most cites vary, most cities require that you be at least 18 years old and have lived in the local community generally one to three years. You are considered disqualified if you have a felony conviction, bribery or fraud related convictions.

One of the most important duties of a council person is to help make sure they are able to select and hire top administrators for the city, such as the city manager or chief of police. The council must work closely together to pass local ordinances. Most city councils have the power to write laws in any area that does not impinge on state or federal prerogatives. Some laws would be traffic ordinances, noise control regulations, anti-pollution measures and ordinances regarding land development. New city ordinances must go through a legislative process just as federal or state laws do. A bill must be introduced by at least one city council member. The council will discuss and modify the bill and it will be voted on at a later date.

City council members are also held responsible for the development of an annual city budget. In some places, the mayor or other administrator will prepare a budget and present it to the city council for approval.

How to run for city council:

Other than meeting the age requirement, you must meet national and state residency in order to run. To run for city council, you must be registered to vote in the district you are going to run in. Other than living in the proper city you must also live in the specific district. In some cities you also will be restricted to run for council if you do business with the city council on a regular basis. And the most important one is to make sure you stay out of legal trouble as a council person should be a role model for others in the community.

The next step is to personally appear before the city clerk as you cannot apply through the mail or phone. You will get your nomination papers and sign a statement and affidavit. The nominating petition is the information that will make you a candidate for city council as well as information about the office you are running for. You must also show a note verifying the number of signatures you will need in order to have a sufficient nomination petition. 

Now comes the hard and tiring part of the process. You will have to go out and get a number of voter signatures in order to prove you are a viable candidate. You will then submit the nomination papers to the city clerk and pay a filing fee. Once everything has been filed and your signatures have been verified, the city clerk will send you a notice of sufficiency. Once you receive the notice, you will be a viable candidate for city council.

Start thinking who your campaign manager will be, the treasurer, a volunteer coordinator and then a scheduler. Campaigns are all about getting the voters to vote for you. So communication needs a theme or position. You must be clear and focused and tell the voters why they should vote for you. Set your budget up and start to fundraise. Find out who the “old guard” is in your city council. Network through them and other members to try and find out if one will give up their seat, then network some more. 

Some of the council members that were interviewed and spoken with said they didn’t run for the money but to bring transparency to city hall. 

What made you decide to become a council person? Asked of Cotati Mayor Mark Landman.

After Mayor John Guardino’s unexpected resignation in late 2009 to pursue a job opportunity outside Cotati, I was encouraged to put myself forward as a replacement candidate by several different groups of local friends and neighbors. Thanks to their support, I applied and was ultimately selected in competition from a field of about 10 candidates. The appointment position lasted one year, after which I successfully ran for re-election in 2010 and in 2014.

What were your qualifications?

As a former Fire Captain, I brought a background in working with and managing groups of people under sometimes difficult circumstances. Beyond that, I had experience serving as the first Chair of the Marin County Paramedic Advisory Committee and several terms as Vice President of the Novato Professional Firemen’s Association. Within the community I had most recently been successfully involved with the “Yes on Recall” campaign and was a board member of the Cotati Arts Program.

Are special qualifications necessary?

Experience is an important extra, but perhaps the most important qualifications are simply being able to work well with groups of people, understand your community and have a willingness to roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Do have to have some degrees in education?

I hope not as I don’t have a degree! Much like experience, a solid education is a benefit, but what’s most important in my experience is the natural ability to learn quickly.

What are the perks?

From my perspective, the biggest perk is seeing successful change in your community that you know you were responsible in helping bring about, that’s at the best “perk” ever. Beyond that monetary perks are more minimal, with council stipend of $300 per month and the ability to be part of the municipal benefit package for health coverage. That last one is helpful for those who may not have pre-existing health care.

Who pays for the campaign? 

The person running for office and anyone who supports that person can pay for the campaign. In a small-town such as Cotati, it is literally, friends, neighbors and family who help share the cost. One great thing about Cotati is the strong disclosure laws we have, it’s very clear who is supporting a candidate and the influence of outside funding is always evident.

Why some year’s elections and others no elections for council people?

Council members serve four-year terms and they’re staggered so everyone isn’t up for re-election at the same time. So, every two years someone is running, but not everyone at once. The logical rationale for staggering the terms is to balance institutional knowledge with allowing the potential for new perspectives to emerge.

Do all council people go through (what I call turn styles) as it seems the same people are on the dais year after year? 

It seems to vary from community to community, with a lot depending on public engagement. In some communities, it seems challengers rarely arise, in others it happens more frequently. In Cotati we’ve had a reasonable amount of turnover, in the last nine years I’ve served with eight different council members. In our last council election, we had three challengers run for election.

Interview with council member Gina Belforte:

Gina decided to run for the Rohnert Park City Council when she heard that Rohnert Park was going bankrupt. She had to get involved as going bankrupt was detrimental to the citizens of Rohnert Park. She began to think about it more seriously in 2008 and felt she could help as she was a business person that had a business background, understood budgets, labor costs, stream lining and efficiency programs.

The beauty of living in America is that the majority of the population can run for office. 

Gina feels the perks of being a council person is that she can be a good steward of the community and for those that work so hard she wants to make sure that the money gets spent in the right way. She likes to see that things are being given back to the community with streets, playgrounds and facilities properly taken care of. Most council people at the end of their “run” will nobly retire or some go on to planning commissions or in some cases will run for supervisors. As far as the campaigning goes, donations come from individuals, businesses or you may pay for it yourself. 

If you would like to run for city council, make sure you don’t offend anyone on the present council or wait until one or two decide to retire. In Rohnert Park the council chooses the mayor and since they get along really well, they rotate in order. 

Can you run if you don’t live in the area? Yes, you may but you will be called a carpetbagger.