It can sometimes be easy to feel a certain line of division between citizens and the public officials that serve them, as it seems there is a strong separation between a person who decides policy and budgets, and a person who doesn’t.
While it’s important to note that public officials are just regular people as well as we are, they have families, jobs, worries and responsibilities—however, they’re people with a little extra power, and the power they have can deeply impact an entire community of people.
Valley Sentinel recently attended an Arena village board meeting via teleconference. We dialed into the meeting, running 10 minutes late due to prior obligations, and we promptly discovered that the board was already on item 10 of its agenda. That means the board had seemingly already moved through and acted on 10 items, with approximately a minute per item.
What were in those 10 items? Unimportant stuff hopefully? You decide — the items included a public hearing of the proposed 2021 general budget and action adopting that 2021 annual budget and establishing the 2020 local tax levy — literally how much everyone is paying in taxes and where those taxes are going.
That seems incredibly fast for a meeting where a group of our fellow community members are making decisions on our behalf, regarding the services they are or aren’t going to provide, that can affect how we live our daily lives. We, as community members, deserve more than a minute per agenda item.
A selfless public official should be distraught if no one comes to speak up when it’s most important that they do so. A jaded, autocratic or incompetent public official might think it nice that no one shows up, that numbers are conveniently confusing, that no one is requesting graphs to see where the money is going.
The real question is why are residents not calling in or coming to meetings? Why aren’t people interested or involved? Perhaps their local governments are being run extremely well? Perhaps they’re disillusioned, and why? That’s a question that only the residents of each community can answer.
For some public officials, especially in hard times like these, the temptation for agenda items to become just that—agenda items—can be strong, as their term draws on and they are forced to make important financial or safety decisions for hundreds of people month after month, but it’s imperative they also remember the things they deal with at these meetings are more than just agenda items—they are people’s lives and livelihoods.
Sadly, the situation in Arena isn’t the only example, while Sauk County government could never be accused of having too brief of a meeting, as they often find themselves arguing and finding it hard to come to an agreement to pass items that keeps things moving. This can hurt the process and ultimately hurt the final product that makes it to the residents. But even they, in their regular November Sauk County Board meeting, spent merely 30 minutes on their budget — a far cry from something like six hours last year.
Public officials are meant to be representatives of the citizens, and are meant to protect the best interests of their constituency, and it’s important they are reminded of that.
It’s important that, at meetings, public officials treat public comment with respect, and truly take the time to listen to those who choose to come forward. There is a reason public comment is on most agendas and that meeting is open to the public, it makes the public officials accessible, which really, is the whole point. So let’s show up.
Public officials should take the time to truly listen to the issues their constituents bring to the table, absorb that information and do what they can to help that person or solve issues.
Public officials also need to focus on their listening skills when it comes to their colleagues. Public officials shouldn’t shut each other down during board meetings, instead constructive and in-depth discussion on disagreements, to find constructive and logical solutions, is the best path to uphold the best interests of their community.
A reminder that seats are up for re-election in many of our local governing bodies this spring. Want to get involved? Contact your clerk, figure out the deadlines and get the necessary paperwork.
We need to do better than perfunctory, budgets aren’t fun, neither is accountability, but we need to give more attention to both.