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Elected officials will often listen when residents speak
Local decisions have direct impact on lives
Residents pack Flowery Branch City Hall in February 2010 to protest a rezoning and annexation request for a commercial property off McEver Road. The rezoning was passed by the City Council. - photo by Tom Reed

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“We The People” is a yearlong examination of the important role that citizens play in making our form of government work. Throughout the year, The Times and will produce a series of special reports designed to educate our readers on how to become informed, engaged and educated citizens.

It was a night when Hall County residents proved they could have an impact on local government beyond the ballot box.

Hundreds crammed into a Georgia Mountains Center meeting room on a stormy night Jan. 26 to have their voices heard by the Hall County Board of Commissioners.

The showing came while the “occupy” movement was raising awareness of political activity on a large scale nationally.

This showing by residents, however, was very local.

Two issues up for a vote caught the attention of citizens, drawing them off their couches and to the public meeting.

The first was a proposal by the city of Oakwood to annex strips of roadway in unincorporated Hall County in order to give the city access to Lake Lanier. Many residents living near the proposed annexation, were concerned they would not be able to hold Oakwood officials accountable in potential property uses off the roads.

The second issue was a zoning proposal to turn a lot in the front of the Lake Ranch Estates neighborhood into a Dollar General store. Neighborhood residents said the location of the lot was not suitable for accommodating 18-wheeler trucks needed to bring supplies to the store and would bring traffic-safety issues to the neighborhood.

With the combined numbers of the Hall County residents who came to speak about the proposed Oakwood annexation, the Hall Commission meeting room was so crowded that Georgia Mountains Center staff had to open up an additional section of the ballroom and add more chairs.

To be sure, the turnout was an unusual sight for a commission meeting — or any other meeting of local elected officials — where government staff typically outnumbers interested residents.

It also appeared to be effective. After residents spoke in opposition to both proposals, Hall commissioners voted both down.

“I think that night was special. I would call it ‘grass roots night,’” said Linda Brady, a Lake Ranch Estate residents and one of the leaders of the neighborhood’s movement against the Dollar General bid.

During this presidential election year, much will be made of civic participation at polling places. But what some Hall residents have demonstrated, and many local elected officials will reiterate, is that “the people” can make a big difference when they speak directly on issues that affect them the most.

“You like to get the input from the community because you like to get the perspective from those who are closest to the problems (and) who deal with those issues on day-to-day basis,” said state Sen. Butch Miller. “The best information comes from those closest to the problems.”

Politics, and interest, runs local
If polled, most Hall County residents are probably more likely to know the name of the vice president of United States than the vice chairman of the Hall County commission. (It’s Commissioner Billy Powell, in case you’re curious).

They’re probably also more aware of the biggest issue coming before Congress over those being discussed by the Flowery Branch City Council.

Still, members of the public are actually more likely to participate in local government than at the federal level, said Larry O’Toole, a professor of public administration at the University of Georgia. That’s because it’s easier to see how local decisions have a direct impact on their lives.

Moreover, O’Toole explains, people reserve participation in public meetings for those local issues that affect them directly.

“If it takes transportation and baby sitters, what you are going to get is the people with the most at stake,” he said.

Planning and zoning issues, the kind that drew attendance at the January commission meeting, often get the most interest because they can affect a person’s business or property values.

Those issues, O’Toole said, often fall under the “NIMBY” phenomenon, as in “not in my backyard.”

Brady, now 68, actually first jumped into local zoning issues in Fayetteville to oppose the building of a Kmart she said was being planned near her backyard. Like her opposition to the Dollar General, Brady and other neighbors organized and let local leaders know their feelings.

“It was defeated. They ended up moving it to another area,” she said. “That stayed with me, and I’ve always felt a responsibility for my neighborhood.”

That experience and others like it, helped prepare her for what would be effective in communicating with Hall commissioners about Lake Ranch Drive.

She and a “core committee” of neighbors encouraged other residents to shower commissioners with emails. They also staged a demonstration with pickets and posters near the property in question to raise awareness.

But Brady thinks the most effective strategy was inviting commissioners to travel to the site of the proposed store so they could show them exactly what concerned them.

In the end, commissioners voting against the proposal cited their visit to the property and potential problems they saw as reason for their opposition.

Big demonstrations at public meetings don’t always work for the group that brings the biggest attendance. Last month, a group of Gainesville residents were unsuccessful in halting the expansion of the Norton Insurance Agency on their street in Gainesville.

Brady, who at one point served on the Fayetteville Planning and Zoning Commission more than 20 years ago, said elected officials should ultimately decided based on reason, and not just emotional pleas.

An eye on budgets, taxes
Gainesville City Councilman George Wangemann agrees that zoning issues can be hot for those most closely affected by them, but he thinks residents also are particularly sensitive to budget issues.

In recent years, local governments’ budgets have struggled to bring in as much revenue as in years past and continue key services. At the same time, residents are suffering financially, too.

“The budget is always a popular comment point,” Wangemann said, adding: “Usually people don’t have a comment on the budget unless you are going to raise the (tax) millage rate.

For nearly two years, Wangemann has made it his personal mission to engage more residents involved in local government. The councilman walks door-to-door to homes of city residents handing out invitations to upcoming meetings. By his estimate, he’s given out about 4,900 invitations so far.

He admits the success rate for turning invitations to meeting attendees is “not all that good.” But he does think it gets more people aware of their local government, and it gives him a chance to have a conversation with residents about what issues matter to them.

And despite his focus on getting residents to council meetings, he said constituents let their voices be known in other ways, such as email and phone calls.

“It does make a difference,” he said. “I have had occasion to change my mind on an issue because some people have called me to express their issue.”

Speaking his piece
Not everyone waits for a NIMBY issue to arise before they speak their mind. There are also a handful citizens who make it their business to closely follow meetings and regularly speak their minds to elected officials.

Commissioner Craig Lutz actually acknowledged the importance of such residents last week when he called them “accountability partners.”

Ed Lezaj, who served on the Flowery Branch City Council in the mid-2000s, is one of those for his city.

“I’m the kind of guy that’s just an outspoken individual,” said Lezaj, 73, who frequently speaks on behalf of his Newberry Point subdivision.

While he doesn’t attend every meeting, Lezaj said he talks to council members fairly regularly, even if he doesn’t always get the desired result.

“They listen to the extent of being polite,” he said. “But when they act, I wonder if I really communicated my point well.”

Still, Lezaj doesn’t really question whether that participation makes a difference.

“I have to think that or I wouldn’t keep coming back,” he said.

In the end, Lezaj said, he doesn’t really even know how often he successfully argues his point. In fact, he doesn’t seem to care.

“You cannot expect that every time that you have an opinion that it’s going to go your way,” he said. “Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Regardless, Lezaj said, he feels better in the end just for speaking his piece.

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