As local governments across Texas prepare to vote on their budgets and tax rates in the fall, Grassroots America—We The People PAC Executive Director JoAnn Fleming sat down with Texas Scorecard to discuss why and how Texans need to plug in to policy debates at the local level.

“If you are not in the public policy arena, and you’re not fighting, and you don’t stay in that fight, somebody else is going to make the decisions,” Fleming said. With the backdrop of the 2019 “purple” legislative session, Fleming told Scorecard Texans would have seen far better results if more people were involved and active with their local governments.

“If you have enough people active at the local level, your local elected officials will think twice before they trot off down to Austin and complain about the state ‘stealing their local control.’”

And Fleming feels that the recently passed property tax reform—which triggers automatic elections in most cities and counties for increases in property tax revenues of more than 3.5 percent over the previous year—is going to require just that of Texans.

“We have to pay attention to how and why they spend our money. And we’re going to have to require our local elected officials to be accessible, to explain to us what they’re doing,” she said. She also argued that the responsibility for this rests solely with Texans; they can’t wait for help from outside. Groups like Grassroots America “can’t come ride in on a white horse and save you from your local officials. We can teach you how.”

Getting involved in local politics can be very intimidating, Fleming admits. Many of the issues are complicated, she said, and you’re dealing with people in your own neighborhood—people who may not like you making a stink about issues and can affect you or your family as a consequence. “Those are some of the reasons people don’t speak out, because they’re afraid.”

But the consequences of staying uninvolved and silent can be far worsebecause of who is involved. “By and large who shows up to these public meetings are media, and department heads, and people who are vendors, special interest groups who are trying to get a bigger slice of the pie.”

“Average ordinary everyday working Joe and Jane people don’t show up.”

Fleming speaks from experience, having served a term as a county commissioner.

If voters remain uninvolved, Fleming said politicians take that as approval of everything they’re doing—including raising property taxes. “Silence is agreement.”

So how do you begin? Fleming advises simply figuring out where and when your county commissioners, city council, and school board members meet, and knowing which is responsible for what. “Don’t go down to your commissioners court ranting and raving about the quality of education in your school district,” she said. “They have nothing to do with that.”

And when you get started, the first thing you start doing, Fleming advises, is just look, listen, and learn. “I always tell people you should employ the golden rule,” she said. “Don’t pull out the hammer first.”

“If you only have a hammer in your toolbox, you know every problem looks like a nail.”

Fleming also stressed to beware of ways elected officials can try to silence you, such as offering you a seat at the table with committees and boards. While you should definitely involve yourself in those areas, don’t ever let anyone try to make you keep silent, she cautioned. “You have to be willing to be the skunk at the party to make change.”

“Treat other people the way you’d want to be treated, but be firm on what you’re asking for and what you believe.”

Being effective isn’t complex either. Fleming points out it simply takes becoming educated on an issue and being willing to ask elected officials the questions no one else will.

At the end of the day, you can only do so much, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed with all of the issues out there needing attention. For the grassroots, Fleming stresses not to try and take on the world, but start small with the issue you’re concerned with most. “Take what you are passionate about, and go focus on that.”

Robert Montoya

Born in Houston, Robert Montoya is an investigative reporter for Texas Scorecard. He believes transparency is the obligation of government.