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Citizen involvement

2011/04/09

“It is not the function of our Government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the Government from falling into error.”  Robert Houghwout Jackson, US Supreme Court Associate Justice 1941-1954

In my last post, I noted the lack of citizen participation at the council meeting.  This has been a fairly common occurrence over the roughly two years that I have been attending council meetings.

During the campaign, I have spoken to many local residents who disagree strongly with council actions.  I’ve asked why they didn’t go to a meeting and speak, and have heard two primary reasons; they didn’t know in advance, and that they don’t feel their comments will be taken seriously by the council.

The first can be difficult to address from an outside perspective; the agenda is rarely printed in the paper, and is not always posted online in time for an interested party to gather information and prepare remarks.  While it is posted at City Hall by the required 72-hour deadline, the bulletin board is not well lighted at night, and the short outline offered is often inadequate to determine the actual issue to be discussed.  I have a lot more to say on this particular topic, but I’ll save it for its own post.

The other reason given, that people feel they will not be taken seriously is, in my opinion, largely a self-perpetuating fallacy; because so few people do take the opportunity to address the council, many more who would like to speak will tend to consider their comments an imposition, no matter how important the issue may be to them.

Addressing this issue needs to be a community effort; one person speaking at every meeting is likely to be seen as a busybody, which certainly doesn’t encourage others to emulate them.  A relatively small group, on the other hand, could easily serve to show others that bringing an issue to the council’s attention and providing them with guidance as to what the taxpayers want, rather than an imposition, is essentially a duty of concerned citizens.

To that end, I’d like to issue another challenge to my readers; speak up.  I know you have something to say or you wouldn’t care enough to read my posts.  The council will meet on May 3 at 5:30 PM.  While we don’t know what’s on the agenda, the purpose of Citizens’ General Discussion is to talk about items that are not on the agenda.  An individual can speak for three minutes, or a representative of a group of three or more can speak for up to ten minutes.

As for what to say, if you’ve got a complaint, let ’em have it.  If you’ve got a question, ask it.  If you’ve got a suggestion, share it.  If you just want to thank the fire department for getting your cat out of a tree, take this opportunity to let everybody know how helpful they were.  You don’t have to use the whole three minutes, just get up there and say something.  People need to be speaking up at every meeting – with compliments as well as complaints – and often it just takes seeing someone else take the podium to get them started.

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