Democracy is not a spectator sport | Opinion
Public participation is an essential element of a functioning democracy. Voting is just the beginning. We also have the continuing right and responsibility to participate in our government after the elections are over.
After the votes have been counted and our representatives elected, the hard work begins. If we actively participate in decision-making, we can help ensure that our elected representatives represent our interests.
We have the right to hold our elected representatives accountable and expect them to be open and transparent in the decisions they make. But we also have an obligation to inform ourselves about the policies and programs envisaged.
Members of the public have the right to request public information and documents from government agencies. But government agencies do not have a legal obligation to contact you personally to tell you about actions that may affect you.
With very few exceptions, all decisions must be made in open public meetings. For ordinary meetings, the agenda must be published 72 hours in advance. Then it behooves the audience to check the agenda to see if there is cause for concern or praise.
All meeting agendas should be detailed enough for the average person to understand what action can be taken. This mandatory prior notification allows citizens to learn about the proposed decision and allows them to comment on this action before it is taken.
Most agencies publish their agendas and reports online. The municipal council and the supervisory board ensure that supporting documents are provided for important decisions. Some of the smaller agencies are not as consistent in facilitating public participation, but you have the right to request information.
If you choose not to seek or read the available information, it is unfair to accuse an agency of lack of transparency. Just because there’s something you don’t know doesn’t mean it’s unknowable. You have the right to have an opinion, but you have a responsibility to base it on facts rather than rumors and innuendo.
There is rarely a legitimate complaint about a lack of transparency in our local government agencies. More often, the complainant did not try very hard or did not know how to get the information they wanted.
While members of the public have the right to participate in decision-making, we must follow the protocol of every board meeting we attend. City Council and Supervisory Board meetings follow a very standard process. Members of the public can approach a microphone and comment on any or all of the items on the agenda. The session chairman may limit each person to 3 minutes per item on the agenda.
What is not acceptable is for members of the public to speak out of turn or otherwise disrupt the proceedings of the meeting. Disruptors can be removed if their behavior violates acceptable behavior.
Meaningful public participation is an important part of good government. Every elected official can learn from public comments even if they disagree with them. In my experience, open discussions about complex issues will often result in better public policy. I have some advice for anyone who is frustrated or disappointed with the direction our government is taking.
Step up and exercise your guaranteed right to participate in government decisions. Democracy is not a spectator sport. If you get involved locally, you can really make a difference.
If you want to participate more actively in our Democracy, send me an email at [email protected]
Kevin Hendrick is the chairman of the Del Norte County Democratic Central Committee