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Our Views: Be ‘the people’

Want better government? We can make it happen if we all play our part

POSTED: February 5, 2012 12:30 a.m.

We make every effort to cover the news objectively, but once in awhile, we encounter a story we can't wait to tell.

This was the case Jan. 26. It was two stories, actually, over which the headline on our front page read, "Residents get their way."

In one night, residents from two neighborhoods made their views known to the Hall County Board of Commissioners. About 100 people showed up to protest a plan for Oakwood to annex roads in their area. That same night, neighbors from a West Hall subdivision showed up wearing matching signs pinned to their shirts in opposition of a retail chain looking to rezone and locate in the area. In both cases, commissioners denied the requests, giving residents what they demanded.

We aren't taking a position on road annexation or the store location. We just like seeing residents getting involved in their local governments. An active, informed populace is the only way to get the kind of government we all need, one that is responsive, transparent and effective.

Today, The Times is launching a yearlong effort to dig a little deeper into how our governments work and how you can get more involved in the decisions that affect your lives.

We call it "We The People," based on the first three words of the U.S. Constitution. That amazing document crafted more than 220 years ago by a handful of brilliant men ensures that our nation of sovereign states will not be ruled by kings or despots. It states that "we the people" will control how we are governed by selecting representatives at all levels to act on our behalf in local city halls, state capitols, the halls of Congress and the White House.

The politicians we elect work for us. Meet the new boss ... same as the old boss.

But all too often, we take this freedom for granted. Too many Americans have decided, perhaps understandably, that politics is a cesspool for well-moneyed, power-hungry elitists who don't give a rip about what's best for "we the people." They see government as distant and disconnected with their lives, a TV show of talking heads they can't touch or influence.

Many don't bother to learn about their governments and the issues. They don't vote. They don't show up at county commission meetings to air their grievances. And as a result, they surrender control of their own destinies to others.

"All those guys are the same, one as crooked as the other," they may say. "Why bother voting? One vote doesn't mean anything."

If it were just "one vote," then no, it wouldn't. But when many share the same views, one vote can become 1,000, then 100,000, then a million. Those votes, when cast, can make a difference. But when that many votes are not cast, their silence speaks volumes.

What these people fail to see is that their own lack of participation feeds the kind of politics they abhor. When fewer people vote and no one holds elected officials accountable, we cede even more power to those who serve special interests over the public good. There are no leaders more arrogant, self-serving or out of touch with the electorate than those who are never challenged, before or after they take office.

Ironically, some nations around the world are embracing self-government even as many here neglect it. Last year, Egypt and Libya overthrew their longtime dictators, and Syria and other Mideast countries are headed down the same path. Their citizens have marched in the streets and stared down soldiers' weapons, the danger they face worth the price of freedom.

Yet here in the land that started it all when rebels tossed tea into Boston Harbor two centuries ago, many of us don't want to be bothered by the endless racket of a presidential campaign. It's far easier to disappear into our daily distractions of reality TV shows, video games and the like than ponder the intricacies of the candidates' economic policies.

It doesn't have to be that hard. We can play a small part or a bigger one, whatever fits best. You can start by registering to vote, if you haven't already. The deadline to do so for the March 6 presidential primary is Monday. If you miss that, there are other chances to sign up before the July 31 state primary and the Nov. 6 general election.

Take time to learn about the candidates, in any number of ways: Follow the campaign in the newspaper, watch televised debates, listen to interviews on the Sunday talk shows and check out their websites. Even a quick glance at their ideas and qualifications better prepares you to hire the right person when you go to the polls.

Again, remember that they work for us; voting is a job interview. We pay them to do a job, and we have the right to remove them from it when they don't perform properly.

The simple act of selecting our leaders wisely and carefully is the first step toward creating the better government we need. Your single vote won't stand alone; it will join a flood of others in ensuring that our representatives in the community, in the statehouse and in Washington listen to what you have to say.

The next step from there is more activism: writing your members of Congress, banding with fellow residents to address issues of concern and showing up at local government meetings with a sign on your shirt insisting that your voice be heard.

It's a good feeling to get involved and learn how to gain control of our collective fate. It starts with one person's actions and builds from there.

Once it does, there is no stopping "we the people" from making a difference.



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