Powering Up City Elections Coverage

May 8, 2017

I had the priviledge to judge some of the entries from the Alabama Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest recently. If you’ve never judged one of these before, I highly recommend it. It’s a great way to get interesting story ideas or perhaps see an old topic covered in a different way. Or, as the great Tom Lehrer put it:

Let no one else's work evade your eyes
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes
So don't shade your eyes
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize
Only be sure always to call it please "research" 

Okay, but seriously, do not plagiarize. Do, however, take ideas from other reporters’ coverage. One story I remember from years ago was about tattoos: why people choose the tattoos they did and the meaning behind them. With tats so prevalent now, it’s a great evergreen story that’s pretty easy to do. Another one I really enjoyed was coverage of the local "gadflys" - the people who show up to every single local government meeting. I think a better term than "gadfly" would be "hyper citizens," and God bless them for taking the time and effort to pay attention to what's happening in local government.

Without giving away any winners I may have selected for the Alabama contest, I do want to share one of the entries that really stuck with me. The paper, noting the low turnout in municipal elections, did an in-depth series of articles on the municipal elections in their area. They covered qualifying for office, registering to vote, where to vote, the candidates, the issues, the results and the run off. It was a really good series, and I would have been interested in seeing if they had higher voter turnout as a result.

This year is an election year for cities in Georgia (most city elections are held in “off” years), so this is a project that could be duplicated in Georgia in the coming months.  In July, GMA will be sending out a brochure to cities for them to give to people who qualify for office or express an interest in doing so.  The brochure covers some basic tips for someone seeking municipal office, starting with the most important advice: Read the City Charter! Over the years, we’ve seen instances where a new mayor is disappointed to find out he/she doesn’t actually get to vote at meetings unless there is a tie. Or they discover the city has a “weak mayor” form of government, so they can’t veto council actions.  Having a general understanding of the city’s charter prevents a lot of problems later on.

Qualifying for municipal elections will take place in August, with the elections happening on Nov. 7. Keep in mind that municipal elections are non-partisan, so there aren’t primaries, just one general election and then perhaps a run-off. GMA's Municipal Handbook provides additional information on municipal elections.

Also, for 15 years GMA did an “If I were mayor” essay contest for 6th graders. One of the most interesting things was how in-touch 12-year-olds are with their cities! They are quick to identify the issues and offer suggestions (not all of them legal, so let’s not rush to implement), and this could be a good accompanying piece to elections coverage.

With the amount of impact a city council can have on city resident’s daily lives, it would be cool to see these elections get the same type of coverage as presidential or gubernatorial elections.
Amy Henderson: ahenderson@gacities.com; Cell: 404-387-0624, Twitter: @amyh_gma
Kelli Bennett: kbennett@gacities.com.; Cell: 404-796-5508, Twitter: @KelliB_GMA
GMA on Twitter: @gacities


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