Public participation at meetings
By DAVID WARGO
Local governments are where the laws are passed that affect us the most. And it is our local governments that should require the most attention from us, the citizens of these municipalities. That seems like such a simple concept, but not very many of us seem to participate at this level and it shows.
Most of the writers for this newspaper as well as others cover the local meetings in their readership. While I won't speak for anyone else, I noticed over the last 12 years of attending council meetings and township meetings both before and while writing for this paper some interesting behavior exhibited by the majority of the people who attend them as taxpayers.
First, I have noticed that when there is little controversy no one attends these meetings. That is not to say important things are not discussed, but if the community is not aware of them, no one bothers to come to a local meeting. I'm not sure why. They still pass ordinances and regulations that affect us whether we are there or not.
This leads to my second observation. When something controversial does occur in a meeting such as an ordinance that could have fundamental changes in how the municipality conducts its business, the empty chair syndrome becomes the packed house syndrome. A packed house of angry taxpayers who act like they just discovered there is a municipal governing body swarm the meeting demanding transparency. Case in point, last summer the supervisors in Mahoning Township were confronted by angry taxpayers who learned that outdoor furnaces or burners were about to be banned or severely curtailed. While I suspect some supervisors were aware this storm was brewing, it happened nonetheless.
During the discussion that was quite passionate, one of the arguments put forth by a nameless resident was to the effect, "How come we weren't told about this before you decided to pass this tonight? Why did you hide this from us? What were you thinking?" Please file this concept away for the future. Most of the time, your local government does nothing without talking about it endlessly. With all due respect to Mahoning Township, those supervisors had been discussing that ordinance along with several others for YEARS before making a decision. The accusation from the taxpayers is ridiculous in this case. They were told in the newspaper, in notices and news stories many times, MANY, MANY times before the ordinance was put out for a vote. The question should have been directed from surprised supervisors to the taxpayers, "JUST WHERE WERE YOU?"
Speaking as a regular attendee of these meetings as well as a former councilman, there is nothing more exasperating than a taxpayer speaking their mind, then leaving a meeting without a care to whatever else happens. And if the issue returns to the table later in the meeting, all of a sudden the official is accused of trying to pull a fast one.
Not so fast, Mr. or Ms. Taxpayer. You get to speak your mind first, but if the issue is already on the agenda it is discussed then and NOT when you want to discuss it. If you bother to stick around you would learn no one was keeping something from you.
This isn't a football game where one leaves before the last play to get a jump on traffic. This is a meeting that affects you. Next time take the hour from your schedule and sit there and listen. You might learn something. At the very least, it shows the people running your municipality you care.
It is very frustrating when officials spend months working on ordinances using countless hours of their time to make decisions that could affect many people and trying to be fair about it. The least we could do is attend these meetings and voice our opinions during the process. It is not very fair to our leaders to jump in at the last minute and yell at these people that we weren't included. We have the opportunity at least once or twice a month as well as workshops, hearings and forums to voice our opinions.
The conclusion is if we cannot be bothered to attend these countless sessions of discussion then basically why bother coming to the meeting as the law is about to be passed. If we care, we need to care all the time and not just when it is convenient for us.