Assembly proposal a good way to ensure quality government

Posted: Sunday, November 25, 2001

The most important questions facing elected officials at all levels of government today are: How do we ensure "the people" are involved in a meaningful way in the political process? How do we ensure "the people" agree they are involved in a meaningful way?

Every elected official is not corrupt and government is not beyond repair. However, at all levels of government, there may be better ways to do things, ways that will connect people to the public process.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Grace Merkes has suggested ways she believes the assembly could better conduct its business. Her recommendations deserve serious consideration and community-wide discussion.

Merkes' plan, which is scheduled for a hearing and assembly action Jan. 8, would eliminate the current assembly standing committee process. It would allow the assembly president to establish temporary committees to study issues that require lengthy review and research. Public workshops on issues also could be held at the request of the special committee or the assembly president. All committee meetings would be recorded, and the committee chair also could request minutes of the meeting be prepared.

In addition, assembly meetings would start at 5 p.m. instead of 7 p.m. Merkes' ordinance would "sunset" one year after it was enacted unless it was amended or extended.

In a memo about her proposal, Merkes writes: "I am asking you to consider this ordinance with an open mind and to think about the public process and the American way. I believe we should try to be more open and available to the public. This is the only way we can help regain the confidence in the way this borough does business."

Assembly committees now generally start meeting about 1 p.m. on the Tuesdays of regularly scheduled assembly meetings. Lots of debate happens in those committee meetings -- meetings that much of the public is unable to attend because, let's face it, they have lives.

And that's one of the problems with the current system: Most people don't have time to invest in all those government meetings. They have kids, they have jobs, they have volunteer work, they have special interests -- and they don't have a compelling reason to get involved in government. Unless it's an issue that affects their pocketbooks or their quality of life, people have better ways to spend their time.

Depending on which way you look at it, that seeming apathy could be an endorsement of the path government is taking or it could be an indictment that many people believe government has become irrelevant to their lives. Unfortunately, we believe the latter might be the case. The recent borough election -- an election that included the controversial prison issue -- drew barely more than 30 percent of the voters to the polls. And that was when our renewed patriotism was at an all-time high.

Merkes' proposal is a good first step in opening the discussion of how to better involve people in government.

As assembly members and peninsula residents embark on what we hope will be a lively discussion that ends with a more meaningful assembly process, it's worth remembering that changing the process to get people more involved is meaningless unless people understand why their involvement is important.

In his classic "Democracy in America," written in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville offers insight that is applicable today: "A nation may establish a free government, but without municipal institutions it cannot have the spirit of liberty."

Those municipal institutions don't work without "the people." Local government is the best and most direct connection to both the state and federal government. In the political world, it's really where the action is.

There's another point worth making as the assembly considers how best to involve the public: The people really do get the government they deserve. The assembly can make all the changes it wants to better serve the public, but people have a responsibility to take advantage of those changes. Elected officials can't spoonfeed the rest of us a desire to get involved.

In one of his letters Thomas Jefferson wrote: "We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a featherbed."

Today, we should not expect to enjoy freedom without some work. It takes an effort to be involved. The rewards are nothing less than a revitalized democracy.

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