Good governance requires active participation by citizens. You know what active participation looks like: people show up for public meetings, they let their elected officials know what they think, and they express themselves at the voting booth on election day. Engaged citizens hold elected officials accountable, especially at election time.
Its not easy to be an engaged citizen. You have to seek out information that isn’t always readily available. You have to make time for public meetings. You have to think through issues that aren’t always easy to figure out, and you have to convince decision makers that your point of view is worth considering. All of this on your own time.
The task is made that much more difficult when public officials seem to have no regard for what you say, when it appears that deals have been struck ahead of time and your comments are just being tolerated as a formality. That leads to voter disengagement and apathy, which partially explains why voter turnout is so low. Just 12 percent of registered voters actually voted in the last mayoral primary. That means the current mayor won the election with just 7 percent of the vote. To citizens, it often seems like what they think just doesn’t matter.
Here’s an example. When Noblesville and Fishers first started talking about turning the Nickel Plate Railroad into a trail, they held two public meetings. The first, in Fishers, didn’t give Fishers residents the opportunity to speak publicly and the mayor never even showed up. Two days later, Noblesville held a public meeting and the format was changed so people could speak their mind. The comments were unanimous from Noblesville residents: they wanted to keep the train.
So, what happened? The city went ahead with its original plan to rip out the rails without skipping a beat. Considering the public sentiment expressed at the meeting, you might expect our elected leaders to pause and think about what they were doing. Maybe investigate bit further. Maybe alter the plan to see if there was some kind of accommodation for the citizens who obviously took this issue very seriously.
But there was none of that. In fact, there is no official record that the meeting ever happened because it wasn’t a regular city meeting, just a chance for the public to express itself. Talk about being marginalized! No wonder people are fed up with government.
And this isn’t unique. I can name half a dozen similar examples, including the trash fee debate, the Seminary Park debacle and the Pleasant St. extension plan.
I know city officials have to make difficult decisions sometimes and everyone can’t always have what they want. But a responsive city government actually listens to its citizens and modifies its plans based on what they are hearing from the people. An arrogant and cynical government sees the people as an impediment to their plans and works to minimize comment so as not to upset their plans. That’s backwards and we need to change it.