Advocating for Local Environmental Policy Doesn’t Have to be Scary

Despite a growing list of environmental concerns affecting communities across the country, there is a chronic shortage of legislation aimed at curbing and addressing these issues. At the federal level, partisan gridlock has stymied bipartisan solutions. Similarly, progress at the state level is slow, with many legislatures also obstructed by partisan politics. This has left issues—ranging from PFAS water contamination to inadequate flooding preparation—unattended to and local communities vulnerable to a host of consequences. In fact, recent Pew Research polls reveal the majority of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all support greater environmental initiatives, from better resource protection to increased renewable energy production.

There is, however, a third, underdiscussed avenue for environmental problem-solving: our local governments. Even in today’s divisive political environment, local governmental officials—whether Republicans, Democrats, or Independents—have displayed a surprising willingness to buck the polarization of our politics. Across the country, there are hundreds of examples of local officials surmounting political differences to address pressing environmental matters.

While it is difficult for you or me to influence state and federal politics, local governments allow for and even encourage ordinary citizens to participate in the legislative process. Through these institutions, communities and residents have the opportunity to implement a range of environmental solutions. Anyone with a cursory understanding of how their local government operates can draft, introduce, and advocate for local policies. While local government and legislation can appear overwhelming and complex—this article aims to show that they are not. If you are interested in passing local policies, here are just a few things you need to know.

What is Local Government?

First, it’s important to understand what our local governments look like and can accomplish. The power and composition of our local governments are derived from state constitutions and laws. Therefore, their function differs tremendously by state. Typically, states have two levels of local governments: counties and municipalities. Counties are governed by county boards, which can have anywhere from three to fifty board members. These officials are elected in designated districts every two or four years. Depending on the state, counties hold significant influence over law enforcement and public education. For instance, in North Carolina, county boards are tasked with building and maintaining public schools. Counties can also manage various infrastructures, such as sewers and parks. Of real concern to the environment, county boards have significant say over land use. In Florida, for example, it’s common for counties to adopt flood mitigation plans that involve improving wetlands and other natural habitats.

Below county governments, but not any less powerful, are municipalities. Municipalities include city, town, township, and village governments and can vary significantly in their authority and structure by state and community. Similar to county boards, municipalities have an elected board, but cities and towns also elect mayors. Compared to county boards, municipal governments often address a wider-scope of issues. Environmentally, they can implement policies on municipal sustainability and energy usage, forestry, park upkeep and prescribed burning, recycling and composting efforts, and much more. Importantly, they are responsible for zoning and city planning. This gives municipalities authority over all types of development, allowing them to promote environmentally sound land use and zoning policies.

It’s important to emphasize that state governments can and do limit the authority of local governments. A good example of this is Wisconsin Act 302 of 2015 which banned municipalities from regulating auxiliary containers. This made it illegal for municipalities to implement plastic bag bans in retail stores.

What Does Local Legislation Look Like?

The most common types of county and municipal policies include resolutions and ordinances. Resolutions are usually passed for one of two reasons: to express the opinions of the local legislative body or to establish a committee to study a particular topic. Therefore, resolutions tend to have little authority and power and deal with temporary issues. Examples of resolutions include creating a commission to study the impact of a recent flood, or disagreeing with a particular state or federal policy, such as Wisconsin Act 302.

Philadelphia’s City Hall. Photo: City of Philadelphia.

Resolutions are almost always formatted in a Whereas and Therefore structure. The Whereas statements go first and include evidence in support of the resolution. The Therefore statements are located at the bottom of the resolution and contain the actual purpose and actions steps of the resolution. While this may be difficult to visualize, a quick Google search will pull up dozens of sample policies with Whereas and Therefore statements.

On the other hand, an ordinance is basically another term for a law. They do a lot more than resolutions and often deal with managing public safety and health, including banning certain practices, or expanding the size of police departments. As long as an ordinance does not go against current state or federal laws, local governments have a lot of leeway in what they can enact. Examples of environmental ordinances include Napa California’s Ordinance on Riparian Habitat Areas which sought to protect native vegetation, and Montgomery County Pennsylvania’s Land Preservation Model Zoning, which protected open spaces from development.

When drafting a resolution or ordinance, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Share it with friends, neighbors, and most importantly, with the local government you hope to work with. Often, local elected officials are extremely helpful and are willing to offer advice or even pass the policy for you. In the case of controversial policies, garnering community support will likely be necessary. With it, you can stride into city hall with confidence that you’re local action will make a real difference for our future.

RCC National Environment Leadership Fellow – Zach Yiannias

Zach Yiannias is a junior at Rice University studying political science, environmental sciences, and history. Born and raised in Wisconsin, he is interested in local politics as well as environmental and energy policy. In addition to conducting political science research on school board elections, he has previously interned with the USDA Forest Service, writing articles for the agency’s southern region. He is currently researching hydrogen energy as a Gulf Scholar with the Carbon Hub and GTI Energy. After college, he would like to pursue a Ph.D. in political science.