Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Sunny Days

There’s a sign by the side of a road near the Richmond airport (yes, GOMM has been out of town) bearing a simple message-- Citizen Ignorance = Government Bliss.

There were no other words, no hints about its origin. Nevertheless, it was thought provoking.

In the past couple of weeks, semi-annual town hall meetings were held around Goochland County. Scheduling these informal sessions about local government in opposition to “March Madness” was unfortunate. Attendance was spotty. East Enders reportedly were attracted by a companion session that focused on the Tuckahoe Creek Service District ad valorem tax, and utility rates. The smelly water issue was reportedly discussed too.

The meetings included staff presentations about the proposed budget for FY 2016, schools news, and discussions about issues particular to each district.

It’s a little hard to interpret the tepid citizen interest in county government. In November, all local and state officials will stand for election. Turnout at the polls will probably be light. Does that mean that voters are satisfied with the performance of those they put into office, or just don’t care?

March 15-21 was “Sunshine Week,” a time for journalists to celebrate and advocate for government transparency. Openness at all levels of government, from the guest logs at the White House to Goochland County’s check register, should be a given, not a maybe.

Since taking office in January 2012, Goochland’s supervisors and school board have worked hard to share information about what they do, and perhaps more importantly, how they spend tax dollars, with the public at large.

Budgets, strategic plans, meeting notices, minutes, and some live streams are easily available online. Elected officials and staff stand ready to respond to queries about pretty much anything. Recent upgrades to the supervisors’ online board packet software make it possible to comment about individual agenda items online.

Current official holders take their commitment to good stewardship and earning public trust very seriously. It has not always been that way, and could revert to the bad old days.

But, does anyone care? The Founding Fathers believed that an informed citizenry would play an important role in the success of their new nation. That concept morphed into a governing class, where elected officials, especially at the state and federal level, can reasonably expect to spend decades tending to “the peoples’ business” from afar, answering citizen communications with form responses and doing as they please.

Goochland’s current elected officials have demonstrated their willingness to listen to, address, and defuse contentious issues. Unlike many of their predecessors, they return phone calls and respond to emails.

Residents of Deep Run Hunt Country came together to successfully oppose construction of a cell tower. In the process, they formed an organization to keep an eye on things, distribute pertinent information, and engage with local government.

Other citizen groups energized in opposition of particular issues seem to have lost interest in local government when their efforts were not successful. They chalked their defeats up to the bugaboos of the “good old boys’ network” or the ever popular “the fix was in” line of thinking.
Elected officials likely would prefer to make decisions that please everyone, but soon learn that, no matter how much care and thought goes into a vote, someone will be unhappy with the result.

Issues that come before our boards and commissions are often thorny and complicated. Citizen engagement, pro and con, is vital to responsive government. Ask questions, share your opinions, and bask in the sunshine of government transparency.

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