December 3, 2022
How Can We Reach “We the People”?
By: Art da Rosa, PE, MPA
During the November Liberty Dinner in Pocatello, there was a comment on how little participation there was in public forums. I have observed this to be true in City Council meetings, County meetings, School Board meetings, and many others. Since the mid-term elections are concluded, I heard many ask the question, “What is the Price of Freedom?” There are various responses, but it narrows down to the eternal vigilance of the people. The Founding Fathers of our Nation have affirmed that it is our civil duty to watch over our government. If that is true, then, it explains why we are losing our freedom.
The busy life that we live and the prosperity at hand have lulled us into believing that everything is well. Americans have stayed away from participating in government affairs. However, times are changing. Many have predicted an imminent decline of our nation. The American people’s re-engagement is necessary for a turnaround. If the last election tells us anything, is that more effort needs to be done to reach out to the People.
The First Amendment tells us that we have the right to “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government.” But, what is the medium that we could use to accomplish it? The following is a comprehensive list of how citizens can petition their governments.
First, Public Comment Section within a government meeting. These are times set aside for the citizens. Typically, the officials conducting the meetings announce that their bylaws prohibit them from acting on items not listed on the agenda. Comment periods are not the most productive medium for citizens’ participation.
Second, submitting written comments or phone calls. These are gathered by an administrative assistant, filtered, and assigned to various departments for response. I believe that government employees do their best to answer inquiries, but many of them cannot address deep-seated structural issues that plague many of the local governments. Additionally, in some places, elected officials rarely get to see these comments.
Third, contact our elected officials directly. Elected officials are known in their communities, people can contact them directly via emails, phone calls, letters, social media, etc. From my experience, special interest groups do the majority of the outreach and the true will of the people is left out.
Fourth, Town Hall meetings. Town hall meetings have been around for quite some time. We have records indicating town hall meetings in the Colonial Era. These are informal meetings where dialogues can take place between citizens and elected officials. I have attended several of these meetings, and I like them. But they are not happening frequently enough, and there is always the danger of special interest groups’ infiltrating a town hall meeting. Nevertheless, the goal is to reach out to the People and reengage them, whatever the medium.
With that said, what can we do to reengage the American People? I would start with Town Hall meetings, perhaps monthly. Additionally, I would like to emphasize three things.
First, these Town Hall meetings need to be regularly scheduled.
Second, the meetings could be conducted by as few as one elected official, but with government employees in attendance. To run a government organization–such as cities, counties, school boards, or special districts–employees will be necessary. The Federalist Papers refer to them as Magistrates. An updated term for Magistrates is Public Administrators, Staff or Government Employees. Note that too frequently, policies are produced and promoted by staff. Both elected officials and government employees need to show accountability to the People. That’s the reason why staff presence is needed.
Third, technologies can be used for outreach. Covid taught us an important lesson: virtual meetings can be productive. To avoid outside influences, such as special interests from outside the area or even outside the state, participants would need to be identified, registered and screened through a moderation process.
Trying to engage the people will not be easy. Along the way, we will find disinterested individuals, frustrated voters, and people with narrow special interests. But, to restore American values and ideals we will need an active citizenry. I also believe that more Americans will learn of this new opportunity, and be reminded of their civic duties. They will participate, because the future of America depends on it.