(General programming note for blog readers in the West Lafayette school district: I am a candidate in the 2020 West Lafayette School Board election. There are four seats open, and I would like to fill one of them. If you want to know more about my campaign, ask questions, request a yard sign, please go to https://masson.us/schoolboard.)
Back in 2015, I offered some thoughts on Being a Concerned Citizen. I’m re-posting that below. It’s my sense that there is much more interest in government now than there was back then. A couple of notes: I sort of specifically excluded civil rights protesters from this post. That strikes me as a different dynamic than what I have in mind here which is less about dramatic change and more about participating in the day-to-day grind of government to keep it responsive to the citizenry.
Also, this is not about how the government committee should respond to the citizens. That’s perhaps a post for a different day — but generally speaking, the board should be communicative and responsive to the citizens on the one hand while, on the other hand, recognizing that the folks who show up at meetings or are most active at any given time don’t necessarily speak for the public at large. On the openness front, adherence to the Open Door Law and the Access to Public Records Act is very important. Their existence acts as a sort of “panopticon,” improving the behavior of governmental bodies even when those tools aren’t actually used. (The Panopticon was a prison designed by Jeremy Bentham on the principle that you could improve prisoner behavior with fewer guards if the prisoner knew the guard could be watching at any time — with the ODL and APRA, the citizen could take an interest at any time.)
That said, you want the meetings to be open without turning them into something like government-by-YouTube-comment-section. I slag on YouTube, but I’m not even sure if those comment sections are that bad anymore. Newspaper comment sections are maybe a better example. If you’ve been online some place that allows unrestricted commenting on controversial issues, you know what I mean. The loudest and most aggrieved commenters can tend to dominate the conversation driving out more casual participants who don’t need that kind of hassle. A committee meeting, like a Presidential debate, needs rules and a moderator willing to enforce them; otherwise, you might find that nothing useful is being accomplished.
But that’s on the government side. Like I said, this post was intended for the citizen side. Here is what I posted back in 2015:
Between my former work as a legislative services attorney and my current work as a county attorney with some other government work thrown into the mix at various times, I’ve attended a lot of public meetings over the past 20 years. Like, really a lot.
Mostly these are not attended by citizens and, for the most part, that’s more or less ok. There is a lot of routine business handled at these meetings by people who are good at what they do. For example, there’s really no call for John Q. Public to get involved with every drainage plan that gets reviewed when some business wants to add some parking spaces.
But, occasionally a concerned citizen or citizens will undertake a kind of watchdog role by trying to come to every meeting of a government body or all of those concerning a particular topic. This can be beneficial and is certainly the citizen’s right. But, I’ve noticed that some approaches are more effective than others. The overarching rule for being an effective concerned citizen is “don’t be a jerk.” Now, I’m not talking here about people whose goal is to effect far reaching social change — civil rights protesters and the like. That’s above my pay grade, and I’m not presuming to know what is effective in that context. I’m thinking more of the good government watchdog who wants to ensure that local decision makers are acting in the best interest of the public.
The most effective people I’ve seen working for that purpose are clear, direct, brief, and polite. They aren’t shy about speaking up when they don’t like things, but they don’t belabor the point, don’t wander off topic, recognize the scope and limits of the public body they’re attending, and avoid delusions of grandeur or that they’re participating in some Manichean battle of good versus evil (where their place on the side of good is never in doubt.)
These individuals attend consistently and, often, don’t have to speak at the meeting. Before and after the meeting, they are willing and able to chat with the public officials in an amiable, friendly way, even if they disagree with the official’s politics. They don’t always get their way. In fact, very often they don’t get their way. But, public policy isn’t binary — decisions are usually made on a spectrum. And, in the back of the public official’s mind — it seems to me — the official will maybe ratchet the policy a notch or two just because they know they’ll get some push back from a citizen whose position they’ve come to know, understand, and perhaps respect to some degree — even if the official will never necessarily agree with that position or frame of reference.
Contrast this with the belligerent bellyacher. This person will never be happy and often treats the public official rudely. Public life being what it is, officials usually don’t have thin skin and can usually endure some level of criticism. But, if you don’t agree with the citizen’s policy views in the first place, the citizen is never going to be happy, and he or she treats you badly besides, what is the upside to accommodating such a person? Mostly the rest of the public will find such a person off-putting in any case, so there is likely no political downside to simply enduring that citizen as best you can and then moving ahead without regard to that individual’s preferences.
Somewhere in the middle you have the people who are not up to speed on the purpose or the powers of the public body in question. A technical planning board isn’t going to be able to do much when the plans are in order but a citizen complains, not about the plans, but — for example — the social value of the business submitting the plan. Or maybe they’ll complain about federal policy to the local government officials. Or they’ll spend a great deal of time talking about extraneous information. These citizens aren’t disagreeable. In fact, they often present very sympathetic stories. But, ultimately, they are not effective because, even where the policymaker wants to help them, there is simply nothing that can be done for them in the context of whatever the public body is designed to consider.
So, be nice, be persistent, be focused, and be concise. Government generally benefits when citizens can engage with it in this fashion.