by Gary L. Heckman
“Who’s Your Banker, Who’s Your Farmer? Who’s Your Sheriff? Where’s Your Money?”
~ Catherine Austin Fitts
I want to preface this article by referring the reader to The Solari Report for a more complete definition and explanation of what a Solari Circle is. You may research the Solari library for various reports and descriptions of a Solari Circle. For the most detailed explanation, see the article by Carolyn A. Betts, Esq. in this Wrap Up, titled: Solari Circles: Take Action Together.
As a source for this article, I am specifically referring to Carolyn Betts’ section about Action Circles and the Community Action segment whereby Circle members discuss how the money works locally. As a further explanation, by a “local government,” I mean your community in general: your town, your borough, your township, your municipality, your county, your school district, and, in some cases, your state. These various governmental units are the types established within the United States system; different states may also have other forms of local units. However, many Commonwealth countries and countries in the G20 operate on similar systems and my comments may be applicable.
The governing authority of your local government may be found in their charters—whether it be villages, cities, townships, or counties—or through their state statute or constitution. Some are Home Rule and are incorporated. There are also subcategories such as Road Commissions, utility authorities, hospital authorities, and so forth. The type of government dictates the form of government. Each of these has governing bodies that make decisions for their unit of government, and all hold public meetings of some sort. Their rules of procedure are found in their charters, organization documents, ordinances, or in the statutes that formed them. All are available to the public and may be acquired from the local government offices.
As a retired municipal manager with 28 years of experience, I have encountered many instances that should have or could have used input from the citizenry (Solari Circle members) for further information or, for that matter, scrutinization.
I will discuss various aspects of local government, not in any particular order, that should be closely watched by the public to assess how it impacts them.
Significant Statutes Affecting Public Bodies
There are two noteworthy regulations to which all public bodies must adhere. The first is the Open Meetings Act, which all fifty states have in effect. The Open Meetings Act mandates that all public bodies deliberating public policy must do so in a public forum. In other words, all meetings must be open to the public and must be either posted or published in advance of the meeting. There are some exceptions to this Act whereby a public body may go into “executive session”: collective bargaining, consider the purchase or lease of real estate, discipline or suspension of a public official, legal consultation with specific litigation, and consider employment applications. In each of these cases, there are certain criteria that must be met. It should also be noted that going into a closed session is only allowed “to consider, consult, or review.” Any action must be made in an open meeting.
The second law is the Freedom of Information Act, also known as FOIA. Again, all fifty states have freedom of information laws that govern documents at the state and local levels. With a few exceptions, all public records are subject to review and inspection by the public. Each state has procedures for obtaining these records, but all are subject to this law and must allow inspections of most public records.
First and foremost, attending all public meetings is a necessity. Public meeting attendance is also one way to meet and get to know your public officials and provide your input and concerns. The Open Meetings Act requires that all meetings be posted and open to the public with few exceptions. Even committee meetings of elected officials are subject to this Act. Every decision by a public body requires that it be made at a public meeting. Public meeting agendas must either be posted in a conspicuous place or published in a local newspaper with local distribution. Major decisions by a public body require a public hearing notice describing what the meeting is about. As I discuss each topic, I will mention the ones that require a specific public hearing notice.
In addition, the Freedom of Information Act provides a means of gathering information after the fact. All local units of government must respond to these FOIA requests within a certain timeline.
One of the most important types of meetings of your local unit of government is the budget meeting. This elaborates on how your tax dollars are being spent. The budget process is a long and involved procedure and takes local administrators many hours to accomplish. A public hearing is required, and detailed information is provided on each line item of the budget.
This is a meeting that should not be missed—and an excellent time to ask specific questions. Does this address your particular concerns? Are your taxes being wasted on unnecessary items? What services are being provided? What is being spent for public safety (police, fire, ambulance)? Does your community provide the services you want, such as animal control, building inspection programs, or recreation programs? What compensation and benefits are provided to employees and elected officials? Do they compare with other similar units of government? What tax rate is required to meet this budget? What capital improvements are in the budget? Are there any grant programs anticipated, and if so, what is the local share and how do the costs compare without the grant? These and other pertinent questions should be asked and must be answered by the local officials. I have found that many local elected officials are not very well versed in the budget and leave it to the appointed administrators to handle without much input. This should not be the case. They chose to run for office and should know the details of everything, especially the budget. After all, it’s your tax dollars at work.
Non-elected (Appointed) Officials’ Meetings
There are many committees and commissions whose members are appointed by the elected officials. These groups conduct crucial meetings that could have a significant impact on your community. Some committees are appointed for specific purposes. Examples include street committees (whose members decide which streets and sidewalks to improve), library boards, recreation boards, and public improvement committees.
Two of the more important committees of this type are the Zoning Board and the Planning Commission. Both of these make recommendations to elected officials that could have a potentially significant impact on the public, and attending their meetings is a must. All of their meetings are subject to the Open Meetings Act, but the final decisions are made by the elected officials, with some (such as zoning changes) requiring a special public hearing. Some boards are autonomous and can make their own decisions without elected officials’ approval, including Downtown Development Authorities, Building Authorities, Hospital Authorities, and Public Utility Authorities. All of these authorities and boards are also subject to the Open Meetings Act and must post their meeting dates and times, and public attendance is open. If a person would like to get involved with local government but chooses not to run for public office, an appointed position is possible. In my experience, I have found that it is hard to find people interested in these positions, so if you make yourself known to the governing body, you have a good chance to be appointed. This is one area in which Solari Circle members could get involved.
Zoning Board and Planning Commission
As mentioned, these are two significant appointed committees that can make some serious decisions impacting the public. Planning Commissions typically do community research and surveys to determine what is necessary for long-term growth. They usually work in conjunction with Regional Planning Commissions (county or multi-county-wide) to obtain information on their specific community and determine needs and desires related to growth. They may use community surveys to gather input from local citizens to make these recommendations. Planning Commissions may make recommendations to the governing body for things such as sign ordinances, zoning ordinances, streetscape plans, and windmill and cell/radio tower regulations.
The Zoning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals basically carry out the requirements of the Zoning Ordinance as recommended by the Planning Commission and adopted by the governing body. Again, all of these meetings are subject to the Open Meetings Act. The Zoning Board of Appeals can make variances for the Zoning Ordinance but must meet specific criteria to do so and must make clear what criteria they used in their decision. These requirements are very specific and are contained in the Zoning Ordinance. The Appeals Board cannot randomly make variances for just any reason. If you or your community will be impacted by a Zoning Board’s decision, you should attend their meeting. Their decisions are appealable to the circuit court for the county in which the property is located. In addition to the meetings being subject to the Open Meetings Act, in some instances, besides the public notice requirements, individual first-class mail notices are required for persons or property within a certain distance affected by the appeal.
Sometimes developers, investors, or builders will approach the governing body requesting property tax abatements or public land acquisition for their project. There are several abatement programs such as commercial development, industrial development, and residential development. Each of these types of developments would receive some sort of incentive to do their project, such as a property tax reduction for a specific amount of time. Local units of government should consider what the long-term benefits to the community are for these abatements. Do they provide employment opportunities? Will they increase the vitality of the community? Will the project encourage other businesses to open, and, more importantly, how will it impact existing businesses? Does it involve housing opportunities? For what area of the community is the project intended, and how will it impact that area? Will the benefits persist after the abatement program is over? Will the abatements improve the community? Exactly how and for how long does the abatement program benefit the community? These are only some of the questions that should be asked, but there are many more depending on the type of development.
The Planning Commission is the body that will look at the project and will hold the public hearings required. If the Planning Commission approves the project, the Commission will forward it to the governing body for their approval or rejection. In any case, the governing body must also hold public hearings and give public notice to get citizen input.
Another request that developers sometimes make is to acquire public property either for free or for a reduced rate. This is one area that should be scrutinized thoroughly. Once a property is out of the hands of the public, it is gone forever. This takes some very long-range foresight and must be looked at in terms of how it will affect future generations. This also pertains to road abandonments or vacations, even if they are not developed yet. Any of these procedures also requires public notice and a public hearing process.
This is one of the most important practices that a community, through its elected and appointed officials, should adhere to: Keep good relations with your local press—such as local newspapers, radio stations, or television stations—and do not make decisions “under the table.” Make certain that you follow all the public notices and Open Meetings Act requirements. The press can either be a good friend or an unfavorable enemy of elected and appointed officials. The press has a way to stay current on issues and will ensure that everything that happens stays “above board.” The press is the communications channel to the public. Local officials should answer all questions openly and honestly. The biggest faux pas that public officials make is to try to hide or cover things up. This will always come back to haunt them. As a Solari Circle member, stay current with the press.
Elections: Know Your Candidates
This is the most important and significant issue that the citizens of an area will face: Who will be the decision-makers of their community? In townships, it may be the supervisor and trustees; in municipalities, it may be the mayor and council members. In counties, it may be the commissioners, county officials such the clerk and treasurer, the prosecuting attorney, and, most importantly, the sheriff. In states, it may be the governor, the lieutenant governor, the representatives (House and Senate), and state officials such as the Secretary of State, Treasurer, and Attorney General. It is so important that you know who these people are, what they stand for, and what decisions they are likely to make.
The first step in this is to meet the candidates. Most small communities have a “meet the candidates” forum where citizens can meet, greet, and ask candidates questions. Other smaller communities may have a question-and-answer section in the local newspaper. On a larger scale, your community may have debates at which the candidates will have to answer pertinent questions. Citizens (Solari Circle members) should attend these sessions and do research on each candidate. Note that what a candidate says and what they go on to do may be the opposite. That is why it is so important to research each candidate, and, using a legal term, exercise “due diligence”; get to know them inside and out.
Once a person is elected, it is imperative that you attend every public meeting that you can. So many decisions are made at public meetings that will have an impact on you and your community. Know where the money is being spent.
Other important members of the community you should get to know are the Chief of Police (most are appointed) and the Sheriff (who is elected). In my community, we had a sheriff candidate who said they were running because they needed health insurance. Guess what? They won. Besides the Prosecuting Attorney, they are the chief law enforcement officials of a community. Get to know them by name and keep in contact with them.
Summary for Solari Circle Members
In her article, Solari Circles: Take Action Together, Carolyn Betts describes a Solari Circle as “a term coined by Catherine Austin Fitts, publisher of the Solari Report. It describes a financial action club consisting of 12 or fewer members formed for one or more purposes.” She further describes (under Action Circles-Community Action) that “each member commits to discovering how the money works locally and undertakes a task to that end.” Ultimately, everything reviewed in this article is a means to finding out “how the money works.” If you attend meetings, watch for public notices, follow the local news, know your politicians, get involved by either running for public office or volunteering for one or more of the many appointed committees, and, most importantly, analyze your local government’s budget, you will better understand “how the money works.”
If you disagree with any decision by your government officials, make that well known by voicing your opinion at meetings, in letters to the officials (or the newspaper), through electronic means, via community action groups, and so on. One very important caveat is to make sure you know what you are talking about; do your research and don’t be misinformed. The worst thing that you can do is complain about or take an adverse position on something when you don’t know all the facts.
Remember, as a Solari Circle member, there is strength in numbers, and a group can accomplish much more than an individual.
Further Reading and References