Local governments have spent large sums of money in recent years attempting to find ways to engage the public in planning, analyzing, and delivering services. Opinion surveys, interactive websites, “town hall” meetings, informal gatherings, newsletters, and charrettes are just a few of the tools cities have tried to interest people in the future of their communities.
I have generally supported these efforts because I have seen a number of difficult issues resolved by effectively engaging citizens before opinions hardened and people started choosing sides. I have also seen expensive failures where large amounts of money and time were spent on processes that attracted few participants and produced little or no positive results.
The most effective method I have seen to get people interested and involved is to invite individuals to attend a meeting where the issue is one that is likely to affect them and it is clear they will have an opportunity to influence the outcome. Mass mailings announcing a zoning change or newspaper articles and ads about a council meeting rarely attract participants.
I think people are less likely to attend meetings today than they were in the past because there are so many more things competing for their attention. Public meetings were a form of entertainment before radio, television, and computers. Most people (me included) would rather spend a quiet evening at home than argue public policy issues at a local government meeting.
The City of Albany has invested significant resources in recent years to make information available to the public through our website. Council meetings can be viewed as they happen through streaming video, and comprehensive financial information is updated daily on the City’s website. We are the only city in Oregon to have achieved an A+ grade from the Sunshine Review, an organization that rates the transparency of state and local governments in the U.S. We make a great deal of information available, but I do not believe many of our citizens take much time to look at it.
We are hopeful more people will visit our website as City Bridges is converted to an electronic newsletter this year. It is difficult to justify the cost of a printed newsletter when nearly all our citizens can access the information electronically, either at home or at the library.
I have heard citizens complain that the reason few people attend city meetings is that they know no one will listen to them. My experience over many years directly contradicts this belief. City councils occasionally give disproportionate weight to the testimony of a few individuals willing to attend and speak at a meeting, sometimes to the detriment of the population as a whole.
Most governments in the U.S. are designed to operate as representative, as opposed to direct, democracies. We elect people we believe will best represent our interests, and we elect new ones if they don’t. Our country has grown to be the most prosperous and powerful nation in the world with this system of government; and, while it is far from perfect, it remains in our hands as long as we make the commitment to understand and control it.