OPINION |Be involved

OPINIONcitizen responsiblities

It begins tomorrow; it’s a brand new year.

2019 gives each of us the opportunity to reflect and to be better people than we were yesterday. We believe you share Columbia news, views & reviews’ gratitude for the people who keep us safe from harm and protect us; those who work diligently to seek improvements in our communities and those who collaborate with each of our citizens to build better tomorrows for everyone.

We’ve reached back into the Columbia news, views & reviews archives to share some thoughts about “citizen responsibilities in representative democracies.”

Have you have ever considered serving your community in an extremely important capacity?

By being an active, informed, participating citizen?

Or considered running for an elected office such as borough councilor? Then keep reading:

Government needs and wants citizen input

A fundamental, and beautiful, aspect of representative democracy is that citizens can participate in the governmental process. Citizens elect representatives at all levels of government … local, county, state and federal … to enact the laws that protect them and provide other government services for them. Citizens have the right to petition the representatives and to attend the government hearings and meetings to engage in meaningful discourse about possible legislation.

It is a fundamental right and responsibility. Citizens must participate in the process; if they do not receive input from the people they represent, elected “public servants” will make decisions predicated on their personal, informed ideas about the legislation they are considering. Hopefully, their decisions will be directed  by a higher sense of benefiting the majority of the citizens they represent.

However there are cases in which the elected “public servants” cast their votes for purposes other than the public good, either innocently or because there is benefit or gain. The point is: Citizens must become involved in the process! – (Columbia news, views & reviews, July 6, 2011)

In praise of citizen “elected public servants”

Government is and has to be open to its citizens. But, citizens must participate to make government work the way it is supposed to in a representative democracy. The elected public servants you vote into office have their hands full.

They read … a lot.

They observe … a lot.

They listen … a lot.

They take verbal beatings … a lot.

And they attend a bunch of meetings … a lot.

To be as responsive and responsible as they can be, they really need to know that you are asking them to be accountable to today’s citizens, visitors and guests and tomorrow’s. Serving in an elected or appointed position is not as simple as many think; these dedicated folks want input and support from the citizens.

For example, there were no citizens in attendance at the Finance Committee meeting on Wednesday evening (September 14, 2011). Yet, the folks who were there – the elected public servants and the borough staffers – in our judgment, conducted a professional, sincere “best efforts” meeting about very difficult subjects: revenue and expense projections for 2012. – (Columbia news, views & reviews, September 16, 2011)

At the July 2011 Finance Committee meeting

Committee Chair Murphy called the meeting to order at 6:30 pm; committee members, Wickenheiser and Barninger were in attendance. Councilor Beury and the mayor, Leo Lutz, attended the meeting. Borough manager Norm Meiskey and treasurer, Georgianna Schreck were present, too. Any citizen who might have attended would have been treated to a sincere, business-like exchange of questions, suggestions and ideas about how to balance the delicate issue of providing services for the citizens of Columbia while contending with increasing costs and flat, or even declining, revenue streams.

There was no grandstanding. There was no puffery or pride. Instead, these folks grappled with real issues for nearly two hours – despite the loud claps of thunder and another onslaught of driving rains outside the borough hall. One thing was loud and clear: the folks who attended, and participated, in the boring discussion of line items, regulations and justifications maintained a single purpose. They were determined to do what they could to hold the line on property taxes.

Obviously, budget decisions will not be finalized for several more months as these representatives continue to struggle with the ugly reality of these difficult economic times. Federal and state funding streams have been curtailed; demands for services continue, but consumers are discovering that they may have to sacrifice even more. Government is like a business of a household. When income diminished, each of them needs more of the citizens, associates and family members to pitch in more … and to scale back demands. It isn’t pretty – but it is what it is! (Columbia news, views & reviews, September 16, 2011)

It’s not a “cake walk” being an elected public servant

Local government needs interested, capable public servants.

We found the following well-chosen words while researching election procedures in Pennsylvania contributed by Beverly Smith, high school teacher and administrator and small business owner; Beverly is a member of the Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Who should run for borough council?

“A person who has lived in the community for a while, maybe for a lifetime, and cares about the people and what goes on.

“One who has time and is willing to get involved. There are many materials to read, meetings to attend, and public events to visit. If your schedule allows it and you would like to participate in many community events, then council may be for you.

“A team player. Council members are one of many. They never decide issues on their own; rather, they work with others to build consensus, or at least a majority. Potential candidates must decide if they are willing to take that role.

“Someone with an eye to the future. Solving current problems by ignoring what the action will mean 10 years from now is the signature of a bad elected official.

“A well-intentioned person who doesn’t really care whether or not he or she is reelected usually makes a good borough council member. People who are always worried about the next election sometimes do the wrong thing on big issues.

“Those who bring a special expertise. Much of borough council is about building: building and repairing roads, water and sewer lines, street lights, cell phone towers – you name it. And council members must understand the budget and be able to monitor it carefully, so financial knowledge is always welcome.

“People with expertise in those areas are very helpful. But others can do a good job too; logical thinkers of any experience are needed.

Who should not run for borough council?

“The one issue person. A council member who has run because he or she wanted get that pothole on Main Street fixed right, once and for all! may not be the best. So the pothole gets fixed. Then what? Three more years on the borough council, wandering around, looking for something else to do. One issue people should just keep after current borough council members or borough staff until the pothole gets fixed and declare victory.

“Anyone who is planning to line his or her pockets on borough contracts should obviously not run, but many do run and win. If that’s your idea, my wish for you is that you go to jail sooner rather than later.

The indecisive. Council members have to vote, out loud, sometimes in front of unhappy neighbors on many issues. If the idea of making a tough decision in public is more than you can stand, think twice about running.

“And glamour seekers should look elsewhere. Running so that you can be in the annual borough parade or be on the stage at the town picnic is a pretty icky reason to take a seat from someone who could actually help. And anyone who thinks serving on borough council will be like The West Wing will be heartbroken to learn how much time is spent talking about drainage ponds.

Borough council members represent all the citizens of the borough on issues big and small. They hire the borough manager and oversee his or her work. They respond to citizen problems and find out how the borough or other governmental agencies can help. Council members initiate ideas for the betterment of the borough; some ideas are their own, some are brought to them by residents.

“And they balance. They balance the rights of individuals against the demands of the greater good. So the most important quality of a borough council member is an open mind, a sense of fairness, logical thinking, and a willingness to work. Does that describe you? Yes? Then run!” – (Columbia news, views & reviews, February 27, 2013)

Want to step up and serve? Here’s how to go about it

If you want to run for public office | Important dates in 2019

General information about running for public office

Be involved; attend meetings

Sometimes citizens will rely on news media; municipal websites for copies of meeting agenda and minutes; rumor mills and insidious gossip in all forms of “he said, she said” tripe for their information about community happenings. A problem with only relying on news media or municipal website information is that citizens miss the actual conversations, gestures, glances and visual interpretations. The problem with insidious gossip is that the conversations, gestures, glances and visual interpretations are filtered by the prejudices of the “gossip monger” who may or may not have actually witnessed the event, communication or incident.

While Columbia news, views & reviews makes judicious efforts to document the happenings of municipal meetings, without producing an audio or video transcription of the dialogue, we (and any other media resources) are not capable of fully depicting what happened.

One comment

  1. This rings so true. Putting this out there is an important and impressive first step in informing the public of “what it takes ” to serve your community. If anyone thinks they are right all the time, is probably wrong many of the time. I strongly recommend that the community, at large, become involved in any way they can. If you are not part of the solution, you might be a part of the problem. 2019 is a new beginning.

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