Archive for category Legislating

Local Government

A reader recently asked how to get things done or changed locally. Another excellent question. Of course, the answer changes depending on which municipality you want to access. Having been recently elected to Town Meeting in Needham, MA, I’ll give you a quick glimpse into what our local political structure looks like, and then give you some ideas of how to find out what your local government structure might be.

Needham is run by a variety of local elected officials. Generally speaking, the Board of Selectmen runs the show. Think of the Board of Selectmen like a state governor — they are the executive branch of our local government. A number of other boards have jurisdiction or control over specific areas — health, zoning (via the Planning Board), schools, housing, etc. The other boards are kind of like the governor’s cabinet and various executive agencies — they work on local legislation and regulation about their specific areas of expertise.

Needham Town Meeting is the legislative branch, just like the state legislature. Town Meeting Members are elected as well, and serve for 3-year terms. As with all legislative branches, Town Meeting votes on and passes local legislation, represented in the Town Bylaws, as well as the annual budget. (Note, Needham’s Zoning Bylaws are available separately.) Minutes from Town Meeting are publicly available, and Town Meeting is open to the public, but anyone wishing to speak at Town Meeting must be formally recognized by the Moderator to officially have the floor. The Moderator also makes a number of important appointments for Needham’s local government, including the members of the Finance Committee.

Then, of course, there’s the actual day-to-day functionality of the town, which responsibility generally falls to the Town Manager and her designees, as well as various local offices and departments. The Town Manager is appointed by the Selectmen for a three-year term. Without putting too fine a point on it, the Town Manager makes it all happen. The Town Clerk serves as the primary record keeper — an ever so important and often thankless and unnoticed job.

How do I know all of this? I know from experience and my own personal involvement, but it’s also written in the Town Charter. The Charter and the Bylaws are the Town’s primary governance documents. Think of the Charter like the state constitution and the Bylaws like the state statutes.

If you want to know who’s who and what’s what in your local government, the easiest place to look for general information is the municipal website, but if you really want the details, get into the governance documents. For example, let’s look at the Town of Hempstead, in Long Island, NY. The website indicates that Hempstead is controlled by the Town Supervisor, who serves as both CEO and CFO for the town. The website also shows six (6) Town Council members, who appear to be the legislative body. So, the Hempstead Supervisor seems to be akin to the Needham Board of Selectmen AND the Needham Town Manager, and the Hempstead Town Council seems to be akin to the Needham Town Meeting, though with 254 members, Town Meeting is vastly more robust in its representation, as New England tends to be with its local governments. If the Hempstead website organization is any indication, it seems the Supervisor and the Council collectively comprise the Town Board, but there is no useful explanation about the so-called Board because clicking on “Town Board” brings you directly to the Supervisor’s page. I also see a Town Clerk and a Tax Collector and several other local government offices and positions, who seem to be independent of the so-called Board. I don’t seen an equivalent to the Needham Charter, though I do see the Hempstead Town Code, which is potentially akin to the Needham Bylaws. (Notably, a search on the Hempstead website for “charter” gave me the town history as a search result, which is quite lengthy and rather fascinating. Hempstead started with Town Meeting too, but evolved over time.) Interestingly, I can readily find the code-dictated salaries for the Supervisor and Council members, as well as the legislative authority for apportioning the districts of the Council members, but I don’t readily see the government structure in the local codes. (Further digging suggests this may be the case because the town government structure in New York is actually dictated by something called the Town Law of the State of New York, rather than each municipality determining its own governance structure. I haven’t read it, but a quick glance at this seems to confirm my suspicion.) Nonetheless, what I’ve found in the code seems to confirm what the website indicates — the Supervisor is the executive and the Council is the legislative branch.

If you want to get something done locally, best to look into your municipal website and governance documents to figure it out. Then contact the people in charge. If you’re not sure you’re talking to the right person, ask for guidance. Once you find the right person(s), keep at it. Persist, my friends. Let’s get it done, whatever it is.



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Words Matter, Part 1 (and The Legislative Process)

A reader recently asked: “What is a ‘statute’ and how is it different from a ‘law?’ Or is it the same thing?

An excellent question. After all, words matter. Words matter a lot. Indeed, punctuation matters too (so says the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit). I’ll leave Oxford commas and the like for another time. For now, let’s talk about some of the words commonly used by lawyers, legislators, judges, law professors, lobbyists, government executives, and others involved in local, state, and federal governance.

Often, people use the terms “statute” and “law” interchangeably. This is not exactly accurate. All statutes are laws, but not all laws are statutes. To really explain this, I have to give a bit of information about how statutes become statutes, which of course involves some additional vocab along the way.

Legislators (Congresspeople) write bills. Bills with any sort of traction are sent to a Committee (such as Ways and Means, Appropriations, Budget, Ethics, Homeland Security, Judiciary, and a whole host of others… check out the complete list of Congressional Committees if you feel curious). If the Committee approves the bill, then the bill is sent to the floor of the chamber of Congress in which the bill was filed, either the House of Representatives or the Senate. (The term “chamber of Congress” is used interchangeably with the term “house of Congress” but I think this gets confusing because, well, one of the chambers is called the House.) If the House or the Senate votes to approve the bill, then the bill is sent to the other chamber for its approval. Usually there is some political maneuvering here, with various drafts of the bill going back and forth between the House and the Senate until each chamber can secure enough votes on the current draft to get approval from both chambers. Once both chambers approve the bill, it goes to the President. If he (perhaps she in the future) signs the bill, it becomes a statute. If POTUS vetoes the bill and does not sign it, then it goes back to Congress for a potential veto override. If each chamber secures enough (more than originally required) votes to override the POTUS veto, then the bill still passes and becomes a statute, even though POTUS vetoed it. If the House and Senate cannot secure enough votes for an override, then the bill fails. (Note, we just covered a lot of opportunities for a bill to pass or fail. It has to pass every step, or achieve a veto override, to become a statute.)

Once a bill becomes a statute, it is published as a slip law, as part of the session laws, and as part of the United States Code. Generally, when people talk about federal statutes, they are referencing the U.S. Code; the language is the same regardless of the source, but it is probably organized differently. A slip law is the specific statute itself, flying solo, and it gets its own number (in sequence, of course). If you’ve ever seen or heard of a reference to “Public Law Number [X],” that’s the slip law version of the statute. Session laws are all of the slip laws for a particular session of Congress compiled into a single source. Slip laws and session laws are published by the Office of the Federal Register.

Slip laws usually make changes to existing statutes, so they read something like this: “Cross out the seventh word in the 42nd line of statute 1234 and replace it with the following text” and “insert, after the words ‘legislating can be so complicated’ the following new section, to be numbered section 15.” The U.S. Code deals with all of those internal references and actually inserts the new legislative language into the right spots in the existing set of statutes. Think of it a bit like editing a really long Word document; the slip laws and session laws show the tracked changes, while the U.S. Code is the clean copy.

So, what was the original question? Oh yeah… what’s a statute and is it different from a law? Now we know the statute is the bill in its final form, passed into law by Congress and/or POTUS. (Note the same process applies in state government as well, except it’s a governor instead of POTUS who gets to sign or veto the bill, and it’s a state legislature instead of Congress doing all the legislating.) The statute is a law. Period.

Really, though, there are other things that qualify as laws, if laws are rules set by government that must be followed by the population at large (or rather the parties to whom the laws apply). Take regulations, for example (often called “regs” for short). Frequently, statutes direct a particular federal agency to promulgate regulations (that’s just a fancy way of saying write and publish the darn regs) to further implement the intent of the statute. I think of regulations as laws too, given the definition I provided at the beginning of this paragraph. (I’m not the only one to define the term “law” this way.) Regulations are published in the Federal Register. We’ll save the regulatory rule-making process for another post.

That seems like enough for now. For more super dry totally interesting vocab, check out the Senate glossary. It is quite comprehensive.

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