Participate, Because Somebody Else Will
Let’s be honest. For most of us, this whole civic participation thing is a chore. It’s a responsibility. We stay informed; we vote; and really that should be enough. One reason we have elected representatives is to free up the rest of us to be productive, keep the economy going, and pursue happiness.
And yet the previous speakers who called for increased participation — to the extent of committing ourselves to campaigns and elective office — are absolutely right. We may have no desire to make a career, or even a sabbatical, out of public service, we may have no thirst for political power, but that is precisely why we are needed. Simply put, if we don’t step forward, somebody else will. Somebody who doesn’t see government as a chore.
As an indication of what I’m talking about, I’m going to read a few lines from the infamous fire-truck petition:
This proposal is being sought because the item was not considered by the Tiverton Budget Committee in the docket for this year and because numerous members of the Tiverton Budget Committee have advocated a maximum increase in the annual tax levy not to exceed one percent or zero, because the Tiverton Budget Committee is recommending a slashed school operational budget in order to achieve their desired goal … and because these same Budget Committee members are squandering the limited ability to utilize tax revenues under the State mandated cap of 4.75% to improve the community as a whole.
There’s no statement of dire need to buy such equipment despite the horrible economy. No research about the likely changes in property insurance. No examples of lives that would recently have been saved. The authors of this petition didn’t even bother to note properties that might have been preserved in the past. According to news reports, they didn’t even consult the fire chief!
Their primary motivation, in other words, is to out-maneuver people they don’t like on the Budget Committee, and secondly, to claim as much of your income as possible. Their design is to take money from every taxpayer in Tiverton and allocate it to the priorities of a few people with the time and motivation to manipulate procedure.
Some of these people either benefit directly from town government or are close to people who do. Others of them, well, who knows? Maybe they’ve got their eyes on the State House and maybe, in their long-term aspirations, on Congress. Maybe they just like the feeling of a little local prominence. Or maybe it’s more like a high school popularity thing.
I want to stress, here, that I’m not talking about everybody in local government, whether I agree with them or not. But this is certainly a segment — a vocal and active contingent that must be countered. And the reason it must be countered is that if somebody is in government for personal gain, whether of the wallet or of the ego, or even if he or she just thought it’d be a nice way to get involved in the community, then that person is going to be more susceptible to special interests.
For example, throughout the recent teachers’ contract discussions, we heard again and again, from the union as well as people on the other side of the negotiating table, that the money was “in the budget.” The people of Tiverton — the argument went — wanted that money to go to the teachers’ union. And now, here we stand, with all of the town’s major contracts up for negotiation during a down economy, and the school committee chairman told the Budget Committee that he’s got no bargaining leverage. The Town Council President claims it’s easier to have too much money in the budget for labor and to put some back in the general fund if negotiations go well.
What these representatives should be advocating is to force the unions to negotiate against a taxpayer-mandated cut. Instead, there’s been a push, which we’ll probably see again at the financial town meeting, to postpone budget decisions until after the unions are all settled up. The Committee and the Council want to negotiate with an admittedly weak hand rather than to be able to say to the unions, “The money is not in the budget. At least you have your jobs.”
You probably already know the argument that we’ll hear if the FTM occurs after the fact. “These contracts are signed. There’s nothing we can do. Except raise taxes. Oh, and by the way, we’re going to need more money to staff, equip, and fuel our new fire truck.”
Folks, we do have to start small, and that means simply attending the financial town meeting. But we also have to build, because these people, these problems, already permeate our system at every layer of government. TCC is available to provide some structure — and some moral support — at the town level, and the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition is growing at the state level for the same purpose, but there really is no substitute for participation.
We’ve reached the point in Tiverton and in Rhode Island that participation is no longer a civic duty or chore. It’s a matter of self defense.