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Town Policy: Who Cares?

Reading's silent majority.

Who’s to blame when the Town makes a decision that goes against the wishes of a majority of the community?

Is it the fault of the great, silent majority of the community who is too busy to focus much on the day-to-day minutia of town government?  Is it the Town Manager—the career government official—who is responsible for the operation of the town and one of the Board of Selectmen’s leading resources on the details of an issue? Or, does the buck stop with the volunteer-based, but elected, Board of Selectmen who must bear the burden of making the final call?

When controversy boils up, government officials often decry they are not mind readers and can only react to the facts before them—the most influential of which is often the number and volume of citizens visibly and audibly for or against an issue.   

When a vote goes against the wishes of a majority of citizens they often assert that the government team ran an inside job to placate the active minority who is deeply involved in the operations of local politics, or worse, did what it wanted to do because it fancies itself as smarter than the rest of us when it comes to governing.

Government types often lament that people need to be more involved in the governing process. Yet, it is not beyond officials to try to make quiet decisions as a matter of political expedience when they know the outcome might be controversial.

One cannot fault government for considering the majority of the population as selectively disengaged, nor can one argue that the public has all the free time it needs to fully participate in the sausage-works of governing. The discussion threads on Reading Patch alone shows that hair and can create a whirlwind of widespread public sentiment, while talk of economic development plans, onerous bylaws and tax policy—those things that can have a profound impact on the community—can be met by the sound of crickets chirping.

This may be true, but it doesn’t mean that the majority of citizens don’t care about bigger issues and it does not excuse officials from ensuring they act in a way that represents the majority.

Like all of us, government officials have a lot to do, little time to get it done and being human, can be driven to decisions by their own perception, ideologies, and opinions. However, the obligation to represent the majority sits squarely upon their shoulders and it’s part of their job to figure out what the majority wants.

As for the silent majority, we should never forget that our elected officials are making the best choices they can on our behalf and they only have the job if we give it to them. If we are not clear and specific about what rights, rules and decisions we want and don’t want, we need to offer them some forgiveness when they blow the call. 

Perhaps it’s time for our officials to stop assuming the vocal minority represents the entire town, put a little more effort into pursing proactive communication with the entire community and a little less time making rules and rulings that do not meet the needs or the will of the majority. Perhaps it’s time for the silent majority to put a little more effort into not only staying informed about the decisions that are being made on our behalf but to also speak up early in the process rather than criticize the outcome.

Therein lies the dysfunction of democracy as we practice it.  The question is what are we going to do about it? If we all play our part just a little bit better the squeaky wheel may get the grease now and then, but the majority will rule.

Jennifer Hart June 30, 2011 at 02:48 PM
Nicely said, Dave.
John Carpenter July 04, 2011 at 03:02 PM
Erin and Dave - Not only did you hit the nail on the head (as usual) with your comments, but you chose a very important nail to hit. While the voters, and then Town Meeting, are ultimately responsible for our collective policy decisions and courses of action, we place trust in the Town's elected and appointed officials, committees, and commissions to carry out those policies and to represent us well. Then human nature intervenes. Some people get too busy; some people get complacent; sometimes the routines of doing business get too comfortable -- it's understandable, but not excusable. Usually it takes a crisis or scandal to revitalize the process, get more people to participate, and to re-think why we do what we do. People don't want to 'wake-up' hear calls to pay attention to such 'mundane' topics as public policy, roles of representatives, how democracy works, or untended consequences of our policies and bylaws. But that's the stuff that affects our lives and futures directly. Perhaps the challenge is how to invite more informed and concerned local citizens into the dialog. jc
Erin Calvo-Bacci July 05, 2011 at 10:31 AM
The most fortunate aspect of our government is it is Democratic. Sometime ago Elaine Webb commented about a Chinese Student they were hosting and his reaction to our Democratic process. He was awe struck that the people can legally speak out against and for the Town Government. So who cares? We should all care and since we all benefit we all need to play our part just a little bit better.
Erin Calvo-Bacci July 05, 2011 at 10:40 AM
Good point John, when training my staff I typically instruct and then tell the why so that they understand our policy. The reason to get involved is because we can work collectively to change things for the better. There is true power in numbers just look at what the EDC has accomplished in the daunting task of amending some of the sign bylaws. I attended the meetings, I spoke with the group and I applaud their effort. Yes, there are businesses still affected (mine included) by the existing bylaws, but our group of volunteers can only do so much and they certainly are not mind readers. Unfortunately, people like to complain and blame, but shame on those who don't want to exert the effort of working towards positive change because at some point those who are "doing" will tire and then what?
Karl Weld July 05, 2011 at 02:12 PM
The big question here is how to get residents engaged in their local government. Local government touches each of us every single day in large and small ways. The impacts of policy decisions determine what type of community we will have, the level of services we will enjoy. By leaving those decisions to a select few by not bothering to get involved - or to even vote - our community will be shaped by what that select few wants it to be. There are some decision makers who don't want more involvement from more people as that may lead to an erosion of their influence on the decision-making. But with greater participation of the community as a whole, the forthcoming policies will truly represent the will of the community as a whole, not just a vocal minority. It is incumbent on all of us to participate. It is our responsibility as a part of our system of government. Commenting on blogs about a decision you don't like, however satisfying it may be to vent, is not accepting responsibility. 12% voter turnout is a "good" year for Reading. I think it's a shame. The easiest way to influence policy is to volunteer for one of the committees or commissions. It's time to step up Reading Resident, and get involved in the policy debates of your community.
peter lucci July 05, 2011 at 03:55 PM
Karl, Several good points by you. Unfortunately the current Board of Selectmen seem to disregard/ignore many of the committees that report to them. This group has brought micro-managing to a whole new level. Many of us residents are frustrated to hte point where we ask ourselves "why bother to volunteer" when it's been made clear that unless you agree with the BoS, they will disrespect you and your efforts.
Karl Weld July 05, 2011 at 05:53 PM
Peter, the only reply to that is to encourage others to run, work to get them elected and hold them accountable for the decisions they make. More often than not there are no challengers to incumbents, be they on the Board or Town Meeting Members. Perhaps it's time for some of the long-tenured members of both to face some challengers. I also think some of current committees and commissions could use "new blood". People willing to look at issues with an eye towards the future, not the past. Not falling back on what we did 15 years ago, but what we're going to do now. As I said in another post, the course we set today will shape the Town for the next 20 years. What type of town do you want to live in? Find someone willing to run who agrees with you and help him/her win. Then hold them accountable. Participation shouldn't end with one vote.
Erin Calvo-Bacci July 06, 2011 at 11:30 AM
Peter, it is a daunting task, but please don't get discouraged and give up because we can only make progress if we continue to try, work together and support those candidates who do have our best interest. Thankfully we have forums such as Patch which helps to educate and engage more residents than the Town had two years ago.

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