Driving County Roads

An on line journal sharing my views. The content reflects my background as a rural person employed in agriculture and as a retired elected official of local government.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

APATHETIC CITIZENRY

Every two years we have the opportunity to voice our opinions as we vote for people to lead us at the local, state, and national levels. Often times we hear of candidates running on platforms of "increasing public participation" or "developing greater connections" between the citizens and the governmental leaders. These are noble goals.

Sixteen years ago, I was in the position of some of these candidates. I was running for public office for the first time. I, too, felt it was important to encourage more public input. I was interested in finding ways to help citizens get more involved in government and creating an easier access for citizens. There are many ways to do this and after I was elected, I tried to support some of them.

One of the first things I did was hold listening hours. My efforts were barely worth the time and mileage. After holding four or five sessions, I had met with only four or five people. Another effort found me writing explanations of various county activities and submitting them to the local newspapers. The newspapers were receptive and printed all of my submissions. Nicollet County does not have a library. I held meetings in Lafayette, Courtland, and Nicollet to solicit input from local citizens regarding library services for the rural areas. This effort garnered about five people who shared their interest. During my first year in office I put forth the idea of holding one of our county board meetings in the evening. This would be an attempt to allow working folks to attend meetings. This idea failed for lack of a second on my motion. A different suggestion did become reality. We changed our budget process to hold full board budget meetings, thus making them open meetings. This allows the public to attend. Even, so, in the past ten years we have seen fewer than ten citizens come to the meetings.

These real life experiences have led to a perception on my part that most citizens do not have strong feelings about how their local government is spending their tax dollars. Of, if they do have strong feelings, these traditional ways of setting up opportunities to get involved are not working. Our county board has discussed this issue almost every year during my time in office. It has been hashed over at workshops and retreats and at budget meetings. Everyone involved feels that we would be better at our jobs, if we could get more public input. We need to be held accountable for all of the actions we take. When the public is silent we are in a never, never land - somewhere between "doing everything right" and "doing nothing right".

In 2006, I decided that since so one else had done it, I would develop a curriculum for citizens on the hows and whys of local units of government. My curriculum covers townships, cities, school districts, and counties. I offered to teach this as a class for St. Peter Community education. The first time I offered it, no one enrolled. I changed the course outline and offered it again and I had three people enroll. I continued to offer the class with the same result. Typically, there would be one or two people show an interest.

Then there is the matter of surfacing candidates. I have heard business people say that they cannot afford to run for office because the decisions they may have to make will hurt their businesses or drive customers away. Many positions for city councils and school boards are filled by only one person running, or worse, depending on write in candidates. I ran unopposed for three of my four terms. Local government is not sexy and it is not glamorous, but it is very important. If more people would get involved and increase their knowledge of how government works, there would be a lot less fertile soil for the deliberately distorted and false campaign ads we see every election year.

We are enjoying a "back to local" movement - local food, local stores, local entertainment. We need to add to this movement and include more involvement in local government. end

1 Comments:

At Thursday, October 21, 2010 8:42:00 AM, Blogger JustinM said...

Do you think that people would watch if the meetings were on video and on TV/online?

 

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