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.