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Our Views: Advise & consent
Those who take an active role in their local government get response, results
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

—The Declaration of Independence

Each election year, we urge everyone to take their civic duty seriously by registering to vote and taking time to cast an informed ballot at the polls.

But there are many ways beyond voting we can use to stay involved in the process of governing. Citizen activism can take on many forms, and the more engaged we become, the more responsive public officials will be to our needs.

One of those is to take a direct role in your local government by attending meetings and interacting with elected officials. Those who do, the “squeaky wheels,” are taking seriously the promise reflected in the Declaration that government’s authority is derived from “the consent of the governed.”

And sometimes, the governed can get pretty ticked off. We’ve seen it before in local cases where zoning issues and other hot-button topics have brought entire communities to city and county meetings. Residents outfit themselves in messaged T-shirts and carry signs to show solidarity and bombard local officials with their views on the issue at hand.

Rest assured, that level of participation gets noticed. Two cases earlier this year involved groups of residents who were able to overturn a proposed road annexation and a commercial development they didn’t want just by speaking out.

Local officials will listen. They know that their jobs and election hopes depend on serving their constituents.

But conversely, when issues of importance are greeted with silence, representatives are left on their own to make decisions. Or, quite often, they are influenced by special interests with a stake in the legislation or rulings they face, cutting regular folks out of the equation.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We all can have our voices heard when we have strong opinions about a subject that impacts our lives.

True, it’s not always easy to join the rally of neighbors at government meetings, which often are scheduled when work and other matters intervene. But there are other ways.

One tool active citizens use to gather information they need and keep tabs on elected and appointed employees is access to public records. Meetings, contracts and other valuable documents are available for public scrutiny, and governments must produce them when asked.

The state legislature this year passed a law easing access to public records, making them more affordable (10 cents per copy vs. 25 cents). Residents banding together to take on an issue can easily share such expenses to gather information they need. And many such records now are kept electronically, making paper copies and the subsequent expense unnecessary.

County and city clerks who manage these documents know the importance of sharing them with residents and will fulfill requests to do so in most cases. When they don’t, a loud complaint to their bosses should get a response.

We in the news media use these tools often to dig up information. But public records aren’t just there for journalists; they are there for all us, and everyone can be their own investigative reporter.

For those unable to attend meetings, phone calls, letters and emails can share your views. On page 4A, you’ll find a list of local government contacts, which we include often on our daily Opinion page.

From the White House to your local city council and school boards, all officials are duty-bound to listen and respond to your thoughts and views. A consensus of public opinion can tilt the scales one way or another.

Though keep in mind, governments won’t always respond to what is seen as the majority opinion. We aren’t a nation of mob rule; airing our ideas doesn’t mean we’ll always get our way. But if we all do our part to add our voices to the chorus, those in elected office will at least know where we stand at decision time.

Too often, we let key decisions slide past us without a whimper. Many, for instance, are just beginning to pay attention to the key vote over a 1 percent regional transportation sales tax to be decided on the July 31 state primary ballot. Public hearings held last year to provide detail on individual projects didn’t always draw big crowds, and some voters may be left in the dark when they go to the polls to decide this all-important issue.

And don’t forget, it was a series of public town hall meetings to discuss the national health care reform law that led to the formation of “tea party” uprisings throughout the country.

That’s also true for the “occupy” groups; though many question their methods (as we have), those involved are committed to their beliefs and making them known.

Governments in Washington, Atlanta, Gainesville and elsewhere belong to you. The people elected to serve in public office serve you. Don’t be an absentee boss and let them operate without your feedback. Tell them what you want and demand they listen. Our nation was founded on that right, and freedom will endure when we put it to good use.

 

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