Only the regulars were in attendance when the Kenai City Council passed its annual spending bill recently. Thirteen million dollars were on the table, and no one had a word to say about it, save for two comments actively solicited by the mayor.
It's not unusual for the Kenai and Soldotna councils to conduct business in nearly empty chambers, despite the fact that decisions are made every week that affect the pocketbook and quality of life for residents of those respective cities.
Sure, you can get a crowd at these meetings if you cut trees in half at the cemetery or want to build a 200-foot cellular phone tower in somebody's neighborhood. But when it comes to the week-to-week operations of the city, council members' voices echo in vacant halls, staff and the press the only ones who hear them.
I cover both city councils and their municipal arms, and I am not so vain to think that people get everything they need to know from my 900-word stories each week. No, my opinion is that unless it's a NIMBY (not in my back yard) issue, nobody cares. Not a whit.
Oh, there are plenty of Monday morning quarterbacks, don't get me wrong. You can read their cheers and jeers from the peanut gallery on the Opinion page, the Clarion's Web page forum and a certain talk show where the callers can't seem to get anything right. But most of these second-hand, second-guessers are not well-informed, involved citizens. They are just people who would rather spout off without being troubled to learn the facts or get involved.
There's one thing that bothers me more than people not getting involved at all. It's people who don't bother to try and have their opinions heard and then cry and moan when something doesn't go their way.
As they say, you must be present to win.
Some people think they have no influence with the so-called cigar-chomping, smoke-filled-room power brokers down at Tamanny Hall. Not true.
I once saw an 11-year-old girl come before the Kenai City Council, out of the blue, mind you, asking the city to install a streetlight along the route she walks to and from school. She made a strong presentation with no help from her justifiably proud mother, stood patiently and answered the council's questions. When she went home she had the promise of a new streetlight in her back pocket.
Her success could have been due to the council being shocked that someone: one, knew it existed; two, attended its meeting; or three, asked politely for something beforehand.
But it's more likely that the council heard someone make a good case on how to improve the quality of the city and agreed.
I guess I can see how a resident of Kenai or Soldotna can become complacent; the cities are pretty well run. Decent councils, decent city managers and balanced budgets don't make for a lot of attendance-generating controversy. Covering councils in Barrow, Bethel and Dillingham, I've seen some characters in my time, and let me tell you, they bring out the controversy.
But controversy is not why you should get involved. Get involved -- even in issues that don't directly affect you or your neighborhood -- because you have valid things to say about how your city is run. If you don't someone else will.
Remember, you must be present to win.
Attending council meetings could be more important than ever in the next four months, as city council and a mayoral election are on tap this fall.
In Kenai, Mayor John Williams will face a rare challenge to his 15-year incumbency by at least one council member, Duane Bannock, and possibly by two other council members, Linda Swarner and Jim Bookey.
These people are well-known by residents and others, they may even be your personal friends. But go to a council meeting and get to know them even better. Because one of them, or perhaps an as-yet-unknown outsider, will play a major role in your life over the next three years -- whether you know it or not.
Jay Barrett is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.
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