Apathy has taken a back seat to active participation at the local level in the greater Tri-City area. Recently, at many city council meetings, motivated citizens have turned out to register their opinions… and it does make a difference. Elected representatives are sensitive to the will of their constituents since just as one election ends, a new cycle for reelection begins. Mindful of this relentless fact, vocal support or opposition does affect the behavior of councilmembers.
Although not always representing a majority opinion, the fact that a group of people are inspired to at least show up at a meeting to support their side of an issue is important and revealing. It takes quite a bit of effort to alter a routine, especially on a weeknight, to either take a turn at the podium for a minute or two, or simply attend these meetings to remind elected officials of where the real power resides in our democratic system. In a recent Fremont Planning Commission meeting, not only were both sides of a proposal for development in Centerville addressed, but students took time on a school night to speak about their views and participate in government… an important lesson in civics that can apply to all of us.
City Councils respond to public communications. This is not a nefarious or mysterious process, simply direct communication between constituents and those they elect to serve their needs. Some prospective developments have been beneficiaries or targets of these demonstrations, but have been put on notice that community support is an important factor when considering the viability of a project. In the recent past, suggested ordinances have been advanced to address a wide variety of issues: housing, zoning, marijuana sales, traffic, shared transportation, rent control, etc. All of these can have a direct effect on residents and, even without citizen input, the council is required to vote for or against, often based on staff recommendations with little or no resident comment. For routine and mundane items, this may be acceptable, but when scrutiny is limited, so are checks, balances and controls.
Whether to express approval, disapproval or a grievance, a key factor when representing your point of view is not only the strength of the argument, but adherence to common courtesy. In most cases, people advancing their point of view at council meetings have respected the process and adhered to meeting protocols. Even though everyone may not elect to speak, especially when speakers echo the same message, presence at the meeting can have a powerful effect. Visual support of a well-constructed argument delivered in a calm, rational manner not only has significant influence on councilmembers, but allows the agenda to advance in an orderly manner.
A packed council chamber can be used to demonstrate an overwhelming sentiment even without each person speaking for their allotted time (usually 1-3 minutes). An identifying color, clothing, button, raising a hand or standing up to signify support when asked by a speaker can be as influential as hours of “me too” speak. In some ways, this can be even more powerful than a series of speakers verbalizing identical arguments.
It is heartening to watch an informed and active electorate participate in our governmental process. Hopefully, this activism will continue in a constructive and supportive environment that benefits our cities and extends to regional, state and national issues.