Budget Time, and Public Office

Local government is an amazing thing. In New Hampshire, the Live Free or Die state, the goal is to put control directly into the hands of the voters for the most part. That means elected officials sit before citizens and have to answer direct questions directly. Imagine if the same were true on the national level…

I’ve been caught up in the budget debates in recent weeks, from how much teachers make to grant applications for police officers. The only thing that seems to be missing, however, is the public.

Last night I was at the public hearing for the town of Conway budget, which just passed the 10,000 population milestone. There were roughly six members of the public in the audience. Everyone else was an elected official. Tonight it was the town of Bartlett budget public hearing. There were 10 people there, including the fire chief and the police chief. While proportionately better (Bartlett has about 3,000 residents, I think) it was still a dismal turnout.

The day before I was at a Conway selectmen’s meeting. A local neighborhood association had urged people to come out and voice their position on an issue, but there were less than five people that heeded that call. A couple other people who were there for unrelated reasons shared their opinions, but overall it was a flop (there may have been a few emails sent to town officials, however).

I wrote about this problem years ago in Berlin — Where is everybody? Local government gives people a lot of control over how decisions are made, but first people have to show up. And they don’t. When they do, like at last year’s school deliberative meeting, they can exert amazing force, but in day to day governance boards and commissions are left on their own. It’s sad to see.

And yet people complain. They write to the paper and post to Facebook about how much local government sucks. They may not realize the level of power they could wield, accustomed instead to federal elections where one vote is a drop in the bucket.

If there is one thing I’ve learned by covering hundreds of public meetings (literally) it’s show up. And run. Get involved. Try running things and you’ll probably criticize a lot less. Or at least you’ll be able to do something about it.

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