Ideas to help public keep tabs on boards
More than likely if you are reading this column, you are an American citizen. And as such, given ours is a participatory democracy, it requires your active engagement. Being fed up, angry, uninformed, or disinterested gives no American a pass when it comes to being an engaged and educated citizen.
More than likely, everyone—100 percent—of those reading this column can name the president of the United States, and a good portion—but less than 100 percent—can name their state’s governor and at least one of their U.S. senators or representative.
That percentage dwindles more so when it comes to one naming his/her state representative or senator, but it might increase when asked to identify their town’s mayor or county commissioners. Let’s call it the local effect.
But what about our public boards? Quiz yourself. Identify the five members of our Board of Education. Now list our five other tax-funded districts, and name their board members. I know that I, a relatively engaged citizen, can’t.
We hear a drumbeat about the need for tax-funded boards and organizations to be transparent and accountable. But it is also likely that unless your house catches afire, you check out books, work out at the rec center, have children in school, or drive to your home St. Mary’s/Alice area and drink its water (hint to the five), you would be hard pressed to pass a Clear Creek citizens’ test. Yet, we all have the right to vote and many of us pay the property taxes that fund them.
So who is to blame? Each of us.
First as a culture, we have bought into the fallacious idea that we do not need to be politically aware and active in order to be deserving of our birthright. In other words, we take our freedom and constitutional system for granted. Ironically, we reserve the right to squawk—the sacred First Amendment—but then leave the protection of it to others.
Second, our system oftentimes short-circuits the process to foster an aware citizenry. Third, because of those, governance boards can feel as if they have little or no obligation to be transparent or to hear those who pay their organization’s bills.
Technically, public boards are open to all citizens in their areas to serve on. In reality, that does not happen. The reason lies, in large part, with the way they fill their seats: nearly always by appointment or through self-nomination.
A case in point: Two Board of Education seats should have been up for election last week. But the school district cancelled the vote because only one person in each region notified the district he/she was interested. Hence, the logic is why spend money on an election for which the winner is already known.
If democracy depended upon saving dollars, that might hold water. But it doesn’t. Democracy is dependent upon an informed and active citizenry. By cancelling the election, the school district took not only the election but also itself off peoples’ radars.
“What school board election?” an average citizen might ask. “I wasn’t aware there is at least one seat open on the library district’s board,” another declares. There is, by the way.
In short, by not holding formal elections, regardless of whether there might be only one candidate, we cause the citizenry to be uneducated and give it an excuse for not accepting responsibility for what is happening.
That is unacceptable and repugnant because, despite the obscene big money in politics today, the three of the most powerful words in our Constitution are “We the people.” Our Jefferson county neighbors just proved that point in their school board recall vote.
Allow me to offer a twofold solution:
One, each special district to be required to produce, post online, and mail an annual report that gives a detailed accounting of its actions.
Two, formal public elections overseen by our county clerk to be held for half of each district’s board every two years in November, coinciding with the school district’s elections, regardless of the number of individuals that have declared their interest in serving
It would be a small price to pay for democracy, but the benefits for an educated citizenry bearing the ultimate responsibility would be priceless.