Changing Local Policies

When we hear the word democracy it doesn’t always sound meaningful in our day-to-day lives. But, a fundamental part of our democracy is the ability of citizens to direct and influence how our government works which in turn shapes the way we live in our communities every day.

Many citizens want an improved government for their community, and with some diligence, their work can enhance the services they already have to include additional wants and needs. In a way, timing can be everything. The time of year and the current administration, might play a role in how soon your inquiries can be addressed. 

This lesson will cover how to change local laws and policies. Such changes might include how to change Detroit law, or even how to get City government to consider your advocacy. 

Connecting the Dots

Our government, at every level–Detroit, Michigan, and the United States–offers opportunities for us as citizens to change policy. For example, Detroit’s Municipal Identification Program–the Detroit ID–is a result of the community working with City officials. 

In 2014, City Council member Raquel Castañeda-López (District 6) created the Immigration Task Force (ITF) to support existing and future immigrant communities in Detroit.  The ITF is made up of 30 community members representing different immigrant communities in Detroit.  This task force, along with other community members, worked with the Councilwoman to develop the Detroit ID which required new City ordinances–or new laws.

The program originated with the ITF but also helps to serve people experiencing homelessess, teenagers, and others who may not have a social security card or other necessary documents to apply for a State ID or driver’s license. By creating a new ordinance, city law allowed its departments to accept the Municipal ID as proof of identity to receive city services (e.g. having an account with the Detroit Water Department for water service), engage with police officers, and to access city buildings requiring ID.

The City also partnered with businesses so that individuals with the ID can access other opportunities in the city without fear such as the Detroit Institute of Arts (which is free for residents of Wayne County if you prove your residence with an ID), or opening a bank account with One Detroit Credit Union.

The Detroit ID is an example of changing local law by working with an elected official, but there are other ways to change law as well. Let’s start with the branches of government and our powers of influence within each branch.

Decision MakerHow Can We Have Influence?
The Executive Branch
Detroit- Mayor
State – Governor
US – President

Advocate for some form of executive action which can only apply to the departments this branch oversees, can’t conflict with the powers of the legislative branch or any existing law:
Executive Order–direct change to supervised departments 
Proclamation–statement of opinion on an issue
Veto–stopping a decision made by the legislative branch (can be overturned)
The Legislative Branch
Detroit – City Council
State – Michigan House of Representative & Michigan Senate
US – Congress (US House of Representatives US Senate)
Contact your representatives to advocate for legislative action like creating or changing a law.
Share possible solutions for lower.
Follow laws that have been proposed through the process toward approval.
The Courts
State and Federal courts can review laws to clarify them or determine if they are valid
Work with attorneys to review laws you think are doing harm and determine if you have a case, an opportunity to present a challenge in court.
The BallotVote!
Demonstrate the collective opinion of your community.

Run for Office
Elected officials make and revise laws.

Put a Proposal on the Ballot
Citizens can place proposals on the ballot for new laws or to change existing laws. Voters can then approve or reject the proposal.

Direct Democracy: The Initiative and Referendum 

In a representative democracy, citizens elect individuals to represent their interests and be trusted with difficult policy decisions. The United States is a representative democracy, but it also has elements of a direct democracy, where the citizens make the decisions directly. This happens through two ballot proposal processes: the initiative and the referendum.

Ballot initiatives allow registered voters in Detroit to collect petition signatures and propose a new law for a vote. If that initiative is approved by voters the law will be implemented. 

Ballot referendums are similar. They allow registered voters in Detroit to collect petition signatures and propose repealing or changing an existing law. If the referendum is approved by voters the law will be changed. 

Detroit citizens can also propose a charter amendment to change the guiding document for all laws in the city and the structure of government. 

For any of these processes you have to collect a certain number of signatures.  Initiatives and referendums both require 3% or more of the votes cast for Mayor in the most recent election. The differences between the two come down mostly to submission deadlines so it’s best to work with the City Clerk for information about the guidelines you need to follow.

[Hanan: I once volunteered for a campaign to raise the minimum wage by gathering petition signatures. I went to different places around the city, like the grocery store and talked to the people there.  My job was to get as many registered voters as I could to understand the issue and sign my petition.]

Additional things to consider: 

  • City leaders can bypass your initiative by passing an ordinance that accomplishes the same goals. Or in the case of a referendum, repealing the ordinance. 
  • If your initiative or referendum passes, it cannot be changed by city leaders for at least 12 months. 
  • The city council can place an initiative or referendum on the ballot for voters to consider.
  • The Detroit Election Commission will review the legality of your proposal before placing it on the ballot.
  • You can’t pass an ordinance on any budgetary or financial matters.

Representative Democracy: Using Your Voice to Make Change 

If you’re hoping to change the City’s laws through your elected officials, you will need to persuade the city council to write new ordinances, change ordinances, or put an initiative on the ballot to be passed by Detroit voters. 

Ordinances can alter city code or the gathering of taxes and there are charter-mandated rules to passing ordinances that you can use for your advocacy strategy.

  • A public hearing will be conducted before the vote on the ordinance. The city will post the time and location publicly, including in the newspaper
  • An ordinance is approved if a majority of council members present vote yes

Mayoral Veto 

Although the City Council has the ability to make important changes in local government, the Mayor has the ability to veto a supportive vote by Council. 

The Mayor can veto, approve or not reply to a passed ordinance or resolution and provide a written statement behind their decision. If vetoed, the City Council has one week to reconsider the ordinance. A 2/3rds majority of serving council members, six out of nine, can override the Mayor’s veto. 

Want to Talk to the City Council and the Mayor? 

You’ll get at least eight official opportunities to do so. To fulfil the City Charter, both council and the mayor must have multiple evening community meetings annually 

  • City Council can pick the city location of their liking for their eight engagements.
  • The Mayor’s community meetings are in each council district at least once a year and one city wide meeting before September 30th of the year. 
  • All of the meetings have public comment.

Making Public Comment

Detroit leaders may have heard about your project from their staff, an ally, or this may be the first time they hear you. Do your best to make a good impression. Come prepared and ready to express your thoughts and concerns.

Here are some useful tips:

  • Know your time: Usually the time allotted for public comment is 2 minutes, but it can be reduced or increased. 
  • Be on time: Don’t miss your opportunity and have time to get comfortable
  • Practice: Write out your comments and practice. Once you’re comfortable with them, you won’t even need notes to look at! 
  • Introduce yourself and your neighborhood.
  • Tell them why what you’re doing is important: don’t assume that they’ll hear your goal and know why it’s meaningful enough to change the law.
  • Tell them the next steps of your effort.


In the lesson State & Federal Government, we reviewed all of the courts that Detroiters attend for various reasons. While local courts (sometimes called lower courts) are focused on prosecutions, state (or higher courts) also interpret laws and their decisions change how laws are implemented. They can also strike down laws that they find invalid.  The courts make these decisions based on constitution, statute (existing laws/legislation), agency, and or precedent (outcomes of previous cases). The courts’ exist in a hierarchy where higher courts such as the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court have more power than lower courts such as the 36th District Court. Higher courts can overturn the decisions of lower courts changing how laws are interpreted and implemented in the future.

What can we do?

Using the courts to change a law is typically a long, complex process requiring a knowledgeable attorney, an identified plaintiff (an individual or entity making the complaint), and a specific identified law or government act that you can demonstrate has harmed you or will harm you.  People can initiate suits because they think their rights are being violated or that a government act violates existing laws. 

Using courts to change laws tends to require a controversial issue and harm or a threat of immediate harm that, once done, could not be remedied.  Bringing forth a case also requires that it argues something new compared to previous cases.

While you cannot directly influence the courts–they legally can only consider the facts of the cases presented to them–when an issue you care about is already in court, you can promote discussion about court cases by writing and submitting opinion editorials (op-eds) to local papers. Use about 500 words to make an argument for your position and the paper will choose whether or not to publish it.

Each of Us Has the Opportunity to Hold Office and Shape Policy

Elected offices, board and commission positions are critical roles in our democracy and opportunities for every day citizens to serve our communities.  These are the individuals who write new policy, change existing policy, and oversee the implementation of that policy. We should all consider the great responsibility of pursuing one of these roles and addressing our causes systematically.  Because it’s a large responsibility, one that has a great impact on the lives of people in our communities, you must make sure you are prepared for the role. Seek opportunities to grow your skills and gain experience. Volunteer for organizations that are working on the causes you care about.  Take time to learn about the policies that impact those same causes and learn about the best ways to address them–how are they addressed in other places that are similar to Detroit? What is currently working well and could be expanded? It’s your job to prepare for these roles so that you can do your very best to serve your community.

Appointed Positions

As we’ve gone through all of the different government structures through these lessons, we’ve mentioned various boards and commissions that have appointed members. Meaning, that the people who oversee the work and services are selected by the Mayor and/or City Council as opposed to being elected by voters, or hired like department directors.  Appointments in higher government like Presidential Appointments go through an application process, however at the local level relationships are critical to appointments because the processes vary depending on the seat but in all cases, recommendations are part of the process. So taking the time to build relationships is critical if you hope to be appointed.  Identify the board or commission you’re interested in.  Read its bylaws so you know the terms of the appointments.  You can reach out and find out when there will next be an opening.  Express your interest in that position to your allies, especially those who may have influence on the position.  For example, if you’re interested in the Housing Commission, you should build relationships with the current Housing Commissioners, the Housing and Revitalization Department leadership as well as with the council people who are on the Public Health and Safety Committee.  You should also get involved supporting the work of lead housing organizations in Detroit like Habitat for Humanity and the United Community Housing Coalition.  Express your interest in serving on the commission to those individuals as well as to the Mayor.  Share your resume and cover letter so they know about the work you’ve done in that area, what you can contribute, and why you’re passionate about the work.

Elected Office

Your community has to choose you to represent them when you run for elected office. Some elected positions like the school board are volunteer roles that you would serve in while also working or doing other things with your life.  Others, like City Council or Mayor are full-time positions that pay a salary and become your full-time job.  Different roles represent different numbers of people too, for example a State Representative district is smaller than a State Senator District.  Elected officials are responsible to their constituents, the people who live within their districts–the people who voted for them, the people who voted against them, and the people who can’t vote (e.g. children and undocumented immigrants). In order to become elected you have to meet the eligibility requirements to be listed on the ballot and run a campaign to get to know your constituents and their needs as well as to share with them your plans and passions for the community.

You might not get what you want the first time or even the second time around when seeking an appointed or elected position but if you’ve done the work to be a good official in those roles, don’t give up.  Build relationships with the people who are in those roles and stay involved. As long as you’re doing your part and have a skillset or expertise to offer so you can serve the community in that role, continue to seek it out.

Final Thoughts

Everything is a process and you should know that some proposals or initiatives are not always successful. This could be for a variety of reasons: lack of significant support, messaging, or timing. More often than not, timing can be the biggest factor –– an idea (a movement), might need time (and space) to grow. It might feel deflating to have spent weeks, months –– maybe years –– working on something that matters to you, only to see it evaporate before your eyes; but stay committed. Stay grounded. Stay connected and engaged. None of this works without you. Your voice and your commitment to the issues affecting your community are key to our democracy and shaping local laws and policies in Detroit.

Lesson Review

Making Sure The City Hears You

Create a campaign arc based on the method of policy change you’re interested in. Work with the end resolution in mind, the change you hope to see. Your foundation is the cause you’re working on, the story that inspired you to do this work.  Your kick-off is how you intend to start working on your cause and raise awareness about it.  And your engagement steps are three different ways that you’ll influence policy change.

Lesson Content