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An Invitation to Democracy

Fri, Dec 5th, 2008
Posted in Commentary

It's practically an American sport to criticize our elected officials. I probably did my share of thoughtless criticism, too, until I took a job "moonlighting" as a reporter and started regularly attending my local school board and city council meetings.

I think the phrase "you can't please everyone" applies especially to the life of an elected representative, particularly those in small towns like you find in Fillmore County. Unlike national politicians, our local officials get to mingle with their constituents daily, for better or worse.

I empathize with these local folks who I see, for the most part, truly doing what they can to make the right decisions. When you watch them month after month studying issues and trying to do what's best, it's easy to start thinking they really don't deserve some of the unkind criticism they receive.

But, this being America, and one of our rights being the right to free speech, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with criticizing our officials.

Yet there's one criticism that annoys me a lot: when citizens complain that decisions are being made "without public input."

Excuse me? All meetings are public. The times and agendas are set and published in advance. There's ample seating in both the city council chambers and the room where school board meetings are held. But seldom are those seats full.

As a reporter, I am often one of the only people in the audience. Both boards offer time near the beginning of each meeting to hear from concerned citizens. Rarely does anyone use this time.

I also think there's confusion about what a democracy with a representative government really means. Democracy does NOT mean that each citizen gets to help decide every issue. Of course we can offer opinions, but we elect people to study the issues and ultimately make the best decisions for the community. I can't help but think that government would come to a complete standstill if each citizen had to provide input into each decision, large and small. Yet when I listen to some people, that seems to be what they want.

As citizens, we have a responsibility, too, and it is to stay on top of current issues-that is, if we want to have something to say about them. When I hear complaints that certain issues were decided somehow in secret, I just have to shake my head.

For the most part, because of my job, I was there. I know that there are ample opportunities for citizens to learn more about the issues and to make their feelings known. Just because we failed to take advantage of that opportunity when it existed doesn't mean the issue was decided secretly, or "railroaded."

Here's the thing: you aren't going to get an engraved invitation from anyone saying "These issues will be discussed at the next meeting. Please do come and share your insights with us."

But while you won't receive such an invitation, in America the invitation always stands, which is why the meetings are "public."

Sure, it takes a certain amount of courage to attend a public meeting, and much more to actually speak. But voicing your thoughts to the decision-making board is the only way to officially make your views known.

I wouldn't want to interfere with anyone's right to kvetch, moan and complain, but I question the value of that in a democracy. And it strikes me as cowardly. How helpful is it to simply spread discontent on main street or at the coffee shop? It might make you feel better, but it does nothing to influence policy and change your community.

Okay. If you ARE a person who requires an invitation to attend meetings, then please consider this your invitation. Contact city hall and/or the school so that you can receive meeting agendas in advance. Educate yourself somewhat on the issues and come prepared to express yourself if you feel strongly about something. I've observed that numbers speak loudly, so bring a few friends who share your opinion.

And then remember that you still may not get your way. Your elected officials have, sadly, more to consider than just your opinion. But at least if you expressed your view, you did what you could, when you could.

And you won't find yourself months later complaining that there was no "public input" just because you failed to offer your input when it was appropriate.

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