How do I find that? Tips on navigating local government websites

After eight years covering local government in Great Falls, I still hear a lot of the same questions about how the system works and how to get information.

A few months ago, a 20-something asked me, “how do they expect young people to participate if we don’t know what’s going on?”

Since I live and breath local government, I sometimes forget that I’m not exactly normal and other people don’t do the same.

A few weeks ago, a local business owner asked me if I knew how to get invited to county commission meetings.  Spoiler, they’re public and typically the second and fourth Tuesday at 9:30 a.m., but the schedule is posted on the county website.

So, I’m updating a post I did in 2018 with tips on how to find information about your local government and how to participate.

Looking for city or county information online? Here’s some tips on how to navigate local government websites

All local governments, the city, county, school district and more, provide time and opportunity for public comment in several ways and during COVID-19, some had created new avenues for public participation while distancing and limiting numbers of people in meeting rooms.

The local government websites aren’t always intuitive but once you get familiar with them, it’s relatively easy to find the basics.

The city launched their redesigned website a few years ago and the county recently launched their new website.

I’ve compiled this list because a lot of useful information is readily available to you with a few keystrokes, but it’s just a primer and if you have questions about how to find public information from local governments, feel free to email me at jenn@theelectricgf.com.

Here’s a few basic tips on using the city, county and school district websites to find information.

City of Great Falls

You can find most things you’re looking for on the city website. It’s http://www.greatfallsmt.net.

The City Commission meets for regular meetings on the first and third Tuesday of every month. Typically, they have a work session at 5:30 p.m. and the regular meeting at 7 p.m.

The city planning board meets the second the fourth Tuesday at 3 p.m. when they have agenda items. The board does meet regularly but will cancel meetings if there are no pending projects requiring their review.

Live streams of commission and planning board meetings are usually available and video recordings of the meetings are usually posted the next day.

First, use the meetings calendar. All city meetings are posted on the website, generally with agendas and City Commission meeting packets are typically posted the Thursday before their meetings. To see the upcoming meetings, just click the calendar button on the homepage.

Looking for city code, aka the rules? That’s available under the Your Government tab, or right here.

The city budget is also a public process. In most years, there are several work sessions on the budget, all of which include public comment, and multiple regular commission meetings with public comment before the budget, and associated taxes and assessments, are adopted. You can find more info on the budget on the Finance department’s section of the city website.

On that page you can also find two nifty tools to learn more about how your taxes break down for city services and budget balancing simulator that lets you make suggestions to city staff if you’d like.

Want to contact a commissioner? Find them here.

Want to serve on a city advisory board? The list of vacancies and citizen interest form are both on this page of the city website. When there’s a vacancy, commissioners make appointments based on applications.

Want to get involved in local government? A good place to start is your neighborhood council. There are nine councils in the city, representing geographic areas. Each council has five members who are elected by their neighbors. Council positions are two year terms and on the ballot with city commission and mayor seats. More information on the neighborhood councils is here and information on city elections is here.

Who can run for mayor and City Commission?

City Commission candidates shall be qualified electors of the City of Great Falls and be residents of Great Falls for at least 60 days preceding the election.

The mayor is elected for a two year term. The mayor shall meet all requirements and qualifications for election to the office of city commissioner. Mayoral candidates shall be qualified electors in the City of Great Falls, be at least 21 years old, be a resident of Montana for at least three years and be a resident of Great Falls for at least two years preceding the election.

All commission, mayor and neighborhood council seats are non-partisan elections.

Cascade County

The county launched its new website earlier this year and I’ll admit, I’m still getting used to it.

County adds to contract for new website

But, much like the city, meetings are posted on the website, along with agendas and associated documents.

There’s multiple ways to get to the meetings scheduled on the county website, either from the top ‘Your County’ tab, or below the main image there’s a button for agendas and minutes.

County Commissioners typically meet the second and fourth Tuesdays at 9:30 a.m. Since COVID, they’ve been using ZOOM and have been using a hybrid of in-person and ZOOM meetings this spring.

Regularly scheduled commission work sessions are held at 2 p.m. on the Wednesdays prior to commission meetings.

For 2021, the planning board meets the third Tuesdays of the month at 9 a.m. The meetings are sometimes canceled due to a lack of agenda items.

The Zoning Board of Adjustment is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. the third Thursday of the month for 2021.

Contact information for county commissioners is here.

Information on county regulations and ordinances, flood plains, permits, etc., is available on the county planning section of the website.

For information on motor vehicles and property taxes, visit the county treasurer’s page.

Great Falls Public Schools

The Great Falls Public Schools Board of Trustees typically meets on Mondays at 5:30 p.m. at the district offices.

Information about the board members, board policies and meeting agendas with associated documents and minutes are under the School Board tab on the website. Or, for quick reference, directly at this link.

During COVID, the board livestreamed their meetings but has ceased doing so as COVID restrictions have been lifted so you have to go in person to participate, or submit written comment in advance (instructions on how to do so are also on the website).