My first experience in local government was service as a student planning commissioner for the City of Bend in 1970-71. I was taking a class with about five other students that required us to investigate whether we should turn one of Bend’s downtown streets into a pedestrian mall. We attended several planning commission meetings to learn more about the planning process and to clarify what was expected of us.
I don’t remember much about those meetings, but I do recall a very long debate about whether a proposed garage should be allowed to encroach into an alley by several inches. I also remember wanting to bolt for the door after about a half-hour of listening to this discussion. The larger issues were lost on me, and I couldn’t work up much interest in the fate of the garage.
Many of the issues local government faces are not inherently interesting unless and until they have some particular effect on you. Nearly everyone has some interest in taxes, while very few people seem to care about the City’s annual budget. Perhaps that explains why after multiple public meetings where a plan to raise revenue this year was discussed, no one voiced any objections until the Council was actually ready to vote on the proposal. I suppose someone could argue that it was all done in secret if the meetings had not been televised, streamed live, and then archived on the City’s website, publicized in the newspaper and held during the same general timeframe for the past few decades.
I think a better explanation is that most people just aren’t interested in taking the time to participate in or understand local government.
Just as I wasn’t very excited about sitting through planning commission meetings years ago, I assume most people would rather spend time with their family, enjoy some recreation, or earn more money than attend public meetings. Overseeing the policies that govern a community of more than 50,000 people requires effort and commitment that most of us reserve for things like making a living.
Despite the hard work associated with local governance and the minutiae that occasionally goes along with it, successfully addressing the challenges confronting a community really isn’t boring.
Our last council meeting was a good example of how important and interesting the work of local government officials can be. The Council discussed maintaining a commitment to investing in art, changes in the City’s transportation system, supporting resolution of a labor dispute, backing construction of a new Benton County jail, approving two significant infrastructure projects, and making Albany a “Flag City.” Councilors also heard from a citizen who feels the City is not doing enough to make dog owners clean up after their pets.
My Bend High School class worked for several months on our project before recommending that the city not build a pedestrian mall in the downtown. We suggested, instead, that the alley fronting the river should be improved and that no streets be closed. Our recommendation was accepted, and downtown Bend seems to be doing well 45 years later. Local government isn’t always interesting, but it is important and is frequently rewarding.