Editor’s Column: Hooray for public participation

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We, like many of you, have spent multiple hours over the last few weeks listening to the county’s budget work sessions for each department. We’ve reported on some of those department work sessions already and are following up on others with additional background information. Some of that reporting has encouraged significant discourse and — GASP — public participation.

Why are we spending the time, effort and precious print space to report on “options under consideration” and “ideas being discussed” for budget cuts and department restructuring? Shouldn’t we sit back and be quiet and wait until the decisions have been made and do one tidy report on the coming year’s annual budget with accompanying cuts and changes. Wouldn’t that be easier?

Well, of course it would be easier. It would also be lazy and irresponsible. As I’ve written repeatedly in this space, public business (the government) is the public’s business, from start to finish. That’s why we raise red flags when it appears open meetings laws are being violated, that’s why we file open records requests, and that’s why we cover as many meetings as we possibly can — including work sessions where random ideas are floated and options are presented for discussion.

We’ve listened and re-listened to, and in some cases transcribed, those work sessions and followed up with questions. Why? Because you — the voting, taxpaying members of the public who foot the bill for county services — have a right to know what is being laid out for consideration by our elected representatives. And you have a right to know what’s being discussed before, not after, the signatures are dry on the page.

Who hasn’t read an article or watched a news report only to be appalled and horrified by the passage of legislation or budget spending at the state or federal level. Who hasn’t asked themselves, “How in the heck did that get approved?”

How those things get approved, whether it’s at the lowest local level or a trillion dollar pork barrel package pushed through Congress, is because someone wasn’t paying attention before the decisions were made. And guess what? Politicians don’t want people paying attention, at least not too closely, or in a way that causes people to ask questions.

Making budget cuts is never easy, whether it’s your household grocery budget or a multi-million dollar organization, but it’s always better to let your constituents know what you’re thinking and give them a chance to respond before you try to slip something by on the down low.

I’ll take it back to the days when I was gutting our household grocery budget because we were trying to feed five teenagers. Without telling anyone in the family, I started sneaking powdered milk in with the “real” milk. Anyone who has raised boys knows you don’t mess with the milk. A near-mutiny ensued, and I found other ways to trim the grocery bill.
Granted, those teenagers were still technically children.

I could have hardlined it and told them to drink the powdered milk the same way I made them eat their broccoli, but if you want to live in a peaceful household where everyone feels like they matter (kind of like living in a democratic republic, right?) it’s a good idea to give them a say before you start making arbitrary decisions in order to save a buck.

By NIKI TURNER | niki@ht1885.com