Appeals And Unpopular Decisions: How To Stay Alive When Residents’ Wrath Is Kindled

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Using appeal authorities in local government to keep the peace…

Sometimes community members get angry—no surprise there.

And sometimes that anger is directed at you, a civil servant (or worse, a volunteer)—still no surprise.

Residents tend to get angry at their local government administrators because (1) they don’t like a decision you (or your colleagues) made, (2) they’re having a bad day, or (3) both at the same time. You can’t control the “bad day” factor, but one governmental tool can greatly relieve pressure in the unpopular decision department.

This tool is a system of appeal—surprised?

Harnessing the power of a well-defined system of appeals may not literally save your life, but it can certainly save your sanity (and maybe even your career!)

Sticky Situations

Julie, your long-time constituent and neighbor, wants to convert her basement into an underground swimming pool, so she applied for a building permit. According to Julie, the Building Official for your jurisdiction denied her a permit due to what she believes is a misinterpretation of a code requirement. Now Julie’s angry and wants you, an elected official, to do something about it.

Other residents along Main Street were recently informed that the Council voted to amend the zoning ordinances to allow for more commercial development. They’re angry because they don’t want more commercial businesses and traffic in their neighborhood, so they stage a protest on your front lawn. 

Situations like these are the perfect time to play the “appeal card.”

Stress-Reliever: Local Government Systems Of Appeals

Having a solid system of appeals can work wonders in relieving political tension—like giving your regulatory process a massage—because it does three things:

  • It gives citizens a legal and effective method of recourse. People get really upset when they feel like the system doesn’t let them fight for their rights. In extreme cases, people start rioting and trying to overthrow the government. (Boston Tea Party, anyone?) Rather than hoping administrators will change their minds, unhappy residents can take a stab at convincing a third-party.
  • It separates powers and minimizes abuse of authority. A system of appeals allows for more checks and balances on the local level, (i.e., so the Building Official can’t become a tyrant.)
  • It gets the problem off your desk for someone else to deal with. You can stick to your principles, and the community can vent/plead their case to a neutral third-party expert. 

Your municipality should have a system of appeals that covers every major decision the local government makes. This system should be clearly explained in your code and on your municipality’s website for transparency’s sake. When this system is in place (more on how it should function in our civiclinQ module), you’ll be able to send angry community members down a useful path to resolving their issue.

Shining Up The Rusty Jalopy Of Your Appeal Authority

For years, many communities have formally established appeal authorities but struggled with their effectiveness—mainly because they are not used very often. These authorities typically consist of a three-person board that meets every three years. 

It is very difficult for the members on these boards to stay current with changes in state code. (In fact, we once worked with a town that said they were struggling to maintain contact with their appeal authority board members. On closer examination, they found out that one of the members had passed away two years prior…) 

In Utah, this unbelievable awkwardness can be avoided because communities are finding success appointing appeal authorities that are external to the organization, such as county staff or private consultants. The costs for this work can be recovered with a simple application fee. Not only does an external appeal authority ensure procedural due process, but a private consultant also typically doesn’t run into the applicants while at the grocery store.

Need Code To Formalize Your Appeal Process?

If you’ve got difficult decisions on your political horizon, then you’d better make sure you have a transparent (and legal) system of appeals. We can help!

Call Rural Community Consultants today to get expert planning, economic, and ordinance advice to make your community the best it can be.

Want To Learn More?

Check out our online training modules! Note: Rural Community Consultants is able to provide access to specific training modules free of charge, courtesy of the Utah Office of the Property Rights Ombudsman.

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