As I’ve had the opportunity to serve on the city council, as well as the planning commission for 3 years before that, I’ve come to have a greater and greater appreciation for what it means when we say that our government is “by the people.” Elected officials have decisions to make, and they’re influenced by their neighbors, their peers on the council, and most especially (or most often) the city staff.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that our city doesn’t always get this right. Far too often our city staff—educated, smart, and experts in their respective fields—think they know what’s best for the city, and if the residents only understood the things they understood, they would agree. And to a degree, they’re probably right, and by all means the city should hire the best and brightest experts it can find. For the most part, the city staff does a great job, and this post isn’t meant to throw any of them under the bus, so to speak.
But sometimes, I think, the staff, and to a degree the council as well (and elected officials everywhere), lose touch with the people that are supposed to be governing. We are a government “by the people,” which means, theoretically (or maybe the adverb I’m looking for is “idealistically”), that the people should decide what their city looks like, how it functions, and what is legal or not, etc. We saw an example of this 4 years ago when the city was considering outlawing the sale of spray paint and “graffiti implements” to minors. The council at that time rightfully pushed back on the staff’s recommendations, and held public input open houses, and talked to local businesses and stake holders and came back with a much more reasonable ordinance that didn’t place an undue burden on our retail stores or our residents.
So I take it very much to heart when our staff of very smart people have a recommendation or opinion that conflicts with the sentiments I hear from the public. As everyone knows, I’m very active on Facebook and social media, and I listen to the issues that our residents have with the resolutions and ordinances that the city is proposing. Sometimes—maybe even often—staff has information that the public isn’t aware of, such as our wholesale costs of construction and utilities etc., but that information needs to be packaged and summarized in a way that the interested public can understand it, so that they can inform their representatives what they think.
I get that most people aren’t engaged and most people don’t want to know what the cost of concrete is and that it’s rising and that means that new buildings are going to cost more next year than they did last year. Most people want to elect their representatives and trust that they’ll do the best thing for their constituents, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But for those that want to get into the weeds with the rest of us, the information needs to be accessible. With very few exceptions, there’s nothing that the public shouldn’t be able to see, just by knowing where to look. It’s transparency, and it’s vital for the success of our city, our county, state, and our republic.
And then, when the staff makes a recommendation that ends up being contrary to what the people want, it is incumbent on the elected representatives to direct the staff in a different direction, even if their education, expertise, and opinion dictates otherwise. It’s “We the people” that run our government, not “We the engineers” or “We the staff” or even “We the elected officials.” It’s your government.