Sometimes Citizens and Their Government Should Be Adversaries

Village and town governments can have committees that address quality of life, livability, and sustainability issues. Officially sanctioned, these committees may meet in a municipal building, and besides citizen volunteers, membership can include government officials. Through sponsorship, local governments are showing good-faith efforts in addressing issues that can affect everyone in their communities, which is good. What is not so good is having these two – citizen volunteers and officials – meeting together, especially in the early development phase of a new idea.

Meetings that deal with quality of life issues like livability and sustainability should not be associated with local government. Proposals from these committees can represent new ways of looking at how people live – things like composting programs, bicycle lanes, community gardens, and affordable housing. What some citizens and officials think of as a great idea may have negative appeal to others – front yard vegetable gardens rather than lawns comes to mind. Leaf blowers? Which is why some ideas can require education, modification, an alternative, or rejection. Ultimately – if the ideas are allowed to get a fair airing.

In government committees, citizens and officials may seem to be participating as though they are on equal footing in terms of influence and veto power, when in reality, they’re not. There can be good reasons for this difference. Unlike citizens, local officials have a range of concerns and responsibilities that can affect the whole community, for example, keeping the budget balanced as much as possible, and assuring quality of necessary services.

This can create conflict: A citizen volunteer making or evaluating a proposal is not facing the same committee as a government official attending the meeting. That’s because, regardless of good intentions, citizens and officials are not on the same power level and don’t have the same responsibilities. The brainstorming development stage of an idea is often too early for a final decision to be made, yet officials can, with great authority, influence the direction development takes by stating their decision early on: “Sorry, it’s just not feasible at this time.”

For communities to be truly open to new ideas, and effective in developing them, the process needs to be managed in a way that welcomes new participants and encourages the expression of personal views. Citizens should feel free to present an idea and then brainstorm with others in a creative environment; their focus should at first be on what the idea is, not on what it can represent once it is ready to be implemented, such as a cost or an administrative issue.

Certain village and town committees should be ad hoc, meaning separate from government. Meetings could be sanctioned by local government – “We’ll give you the room” – but with no participation. Being less formal, an ad hoc meeting could also effectively combine different government committees – such as pedestrian safety and sustainability – resulting in less duplication of efforts and perhaps more effective programs.

Or it could mean shifting development work to a community association, a nonprofit group consisting of residents who want to be involved in local community issues. Of course once an idea achieves some level of completeness, it would then be presented to government officials where further refinements, or rejection, can occur.

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