Not long after moving to our small, rural community, my husband and I began regularly attending our town council meetings. To our dismay, we discovered lazy, uniformed leadership operating with little to no input from citizens. After a yearly audit with significant findings, we decided I’d run for an open seat. Not one of the four incumbents survived, and I was elected mayor by my peers the following month.
Although I’d been a citizen activist in education policy, legislation, and state politics for more than a decade, becoming an elected official has taught me numerous ways government fails without active citizen participation.
Elected Officials Don’t Know A Lot
Most Americans have long suffered under two delusions: one, that candidates and elected officials must know more than they (or at least enough to do their jobs); and two, that a citizen’s civic responsibility ends once they’ve voted. Although I’d attended town board meetings for more than a year before running for election, once elected, I found myself quite unprepared to tackle the remarkably diverse issues that fall under the responsibility of municipal government.
From budgeting to public safety, to infrastructure and parks, to city planning and ordinance writing, coming to understand how to run even our tiny town was like learning to drink from a fire hose. Although I continuously seek input from experienced community members and friends — especially with budgeting — only now, at the end of my four-year term, am I gaining perspective from my experiences and feeling somewhat comfortable in my knowledge of the position.
Uneducated, aimless city council members are unable to uphold their sworn oaths to protect citizen interests, placing the onus on citizens to protect their own by prioritizing regular attendance at council meetings and providing their elected officials necessary education and direction.
Doing the Right Thing is Often Unpopular
If residents want their municipal representatives to make difficult and stressful decisions on their behalf — like voting down an overreaching mask mandate in front of rowdy people demanding one — they should take the time to know them on a personal level.
Confrontation truly doesn’t bother me. But while I’m not generally afraid to speak my mind or debate issues, making unpopular decisions — however necessary — is stressful even for me. When people in the community reach out and encourage me, the anxiety decreases markedly and doing my job becomes easier.
City council members who don’t like confrontation or can’t handle the stress of making unpopular votes can easily dismiss citizens who send an occasional email, sporadically show up on a video call, or attend a meeting or two. It’s much harder, however, for them to ignore citizens who make it a priority to know and interact with them regularly. Just as organizations and businesses employ lobbyists, citizens must become lobbyists on behalf of themselves.
Spending Someone Else’s Money Is Easy
Government tyranny comes in many forms today, but one of the worst has to be the taxation of private property. Popular with public schools and municipalities, general obligation bonds produce funds for community projects by taxing the property of local citizens. If a citizen is unable to pay the taxes allocated, the government confiscates the land and auctions it off to pay the debt, relieving the citizen of his or her property.
Sadly, I’m usually the only elected municipal official in any room decrying property tax generators and standing for private property rights. Because spending someone else’s money is easier than budgeting what’s in the bank, most don’t want to address the elephant in the room: massive municipal overspending. Most of America’s largest cities are broke, to the point they cannot possibly pay off their pension and other obligations. Smaller cities haven’t escaped this massive problem either.
The harsh truth remains, however, that city council members vote to create general obligation (GO) bonds and citizens vote to approve them. As voters could prevent property taxes both at the city council level and in the voting booth, voters themselves are the ultimate caretakers of their property.
Now think about this: what if property owners aren’t even provided the services promised by the tax?
At least 13 American cities have defunded their police departments this year. In my state, the municipality of Norman voted to defund their police department to the tune of $865,000 in June, while attempting to entice voters in August to approve an $85.6 million GO that partially funded the police department renovations and cost private property owners up to $697 a year. The cognitively dissonant bond failed to pass, but 41 percent of citizens voted for the proposition even after a group of residents banded together to (unsuccessfully) recall the mayor over excessive COVID-19 restrictions.
Norman citizens now, hopefully, realize that active and regular involvement in their City Council meetings might have been an easier way to prevent their elected officials from selling out their physical security and property safety than staging a legal coup.
Citizens Have to Vote to Curb Spending At the Top
Recently, our state informed municipalities that federal deficit-funded CARES ACT funds could reimburse public safety pay as, theoretically, every call a police officer or firefighter answers could bring him into contact with a COVID-19 patient. With more needs than money in the coffers, an agenda item allowing the town to apply for CARES ACT public safety reimbursement came before the board.
During a discussion of the item, I summarized the gist of an article I’d read describing the greatly reduced buying power of dollars dumped into the economy, arguing against making an application for money that would eventually make it harder for our citizens to purchase needed goods.
As the clerk prepared to call for votes, however, it hit me: a “no” vote was little more than Kabuki theater because the printing money to buying power ratio in the United States has been inverse for decades. Why should I say “no” when our town is in need and everyone else says “yes”?
I was forced to vote “no” in good conscience, but until citizens understand they have the responsibility to pressure officials at every level to make the government protect their property rights and finances, my one paltry vote might as well be meaningless.
Government on Autopilot Eventually Flies into The Ground
When I hear people complain about government, I immediately inquire about their degree of civic engagement only to get statements like, “I don’t get involved in politics,” or “I vote.”
Sure, there are countless things more fun than attending regular city council meetings, but citizens must become involved in their personal rights, security, and property are to be protected in the face of municipal officials willing to close private businesses, force nonsensical COVID restrictions, and defund police departments.
Until citizens choose to directly operate the controls of their local government, they have no one to blame but themselves if, with autopilot engaged, the plane flies into the ground.