Healthy Civic Engagement
Welcome to the ‘Good Citizen’ series. This inaugural series begins with three articles that discuss how to make your civic engagement beneficial, encourage next-generation civic competencies and empowering citizens to help local government hold themselves and their departments accountable.
So ‘Good Citizen’ is not about being the most active and enhanced best citizen you can be equally as it is not about becoming villagers storming the castle moat with torches. During 27 years of municipal government experience, I have seen drastic change during recent years and this series is simply how to make your local government work better for you and your neighbors.
A distinguished judge recently provided an example using the automobile seatbelt as a metaphor to describe the gap between citizens, the judiciary and the civil and criminal justice systems. He stated that you don’t wear the seatbelt anticipating the crash yet you are too late to put on the restraint when the unexpected happens. He encouraged, as today I encourage you, to acquaint yourself with the systems in place before it is necessary.
Recently, the news media has broadly reported on groups challenging school boards to the degree of disruption where rooms must be cleared and important business is delayed. In other cases, pranksters have been using public comment sessions to practice political satire in disguises. Too often, there is no thought or consideration of consensus in these settings.
The time to confront your council, commission or board is not during the second reading of an ordinance. The fact that you have recently been inflamed by a retelling of the scope and purpose of the new town, city, or county law or school district rule that may (or more likely will not) destroy the economic, moral, and social fabric of society as you know it. At that point, it would be wise to recognize that you are late to the party rather than stew in frustration. A good comparison is jumping in the stream just before the waterfall.
Regardless of political affiliation, local elected officials yearn for your informed engagement and prefer not to go through the process of being falsely alarmed, having your concerns addressed to eventually reach the ultimate purpose of the local act, a provision hopefully for the benefit of the citizens at large.
My suggestion is to get to know your local government before you need to. Today, you can watch a council, planning board or special magistrate hearing on your phone or personal device. It won’t take long for you to get an idea of the processes, customs, opportunities for engagement and decorum standards. While you are online, you can check out the meeting agendas and minutes. In most cases, you will have access to the annual budget and the charter, which are each helpful in their own way. Alternatively, you are always welcome to observe these meetings in person. You don’t have to have business to be there that day but there may considerations to meet if you want to provide public comment on an agenda item.
Whoever you are, the actions of local elected leaders will eventually affect you and your family.
A zoning change may bring a nuisance to your neighborhood, a traffic issue might affect your child’s safety at a bus stop or pending legislation may negatively impact the health, safety and welfare of you and your neighbors. Participating to gain a basic understanding of what local government and school districts can do – and not do- is advantageous to everyone involved.
Pulling the veil back now, before an act or ordinance takes you by surprise prepares you to respond with necessary feedback. Recently a leader discussed how so many angry citizens reacted and spoke out on a minor matter (of fiscal significance) but had been heavily reported in the local news yet the next agenda item was a multi-million dollar loan and there was no public comment or reaction.
Without a doubt, we need more good citizens!
Roland Clee is a consultant with Command Staff Consulting, LLC and helps local governments with media relations, accreditation and strategic planning. He is recently retired from the City of Orlando Police Department.