A rare complimentToday I have the chance to do something unusual-compliment the Knox County Commission on doing something constructive to bring government closer to the people. After all of the scandal and public outcry surrounding the events of January 31, the Knox County Commission decided yesterday to take an action rich in symbolism that could have long-lasting effects. It was an incredibly simple action-they changed the meeting time:
Knox County Commissioners voted today to move their regularly monthly meeting to 5:30 p.m. to allow more citizens input on commission business.
The meetings are currently held at 2 p.m. on the fourth Monday of the month.
This seems like a superficial change because the reality is that a change in meeting time that would allow greater public attendance at meetings is not likely to yield the desired result. I don't say that because I think the Commission is going to continue to be exclusionary, but rather because I have come to believe after years of involving myself in politics and in political campaigns that people are just that sadly apathetic about local government-and that tends to be the case anywhere in the country.
The reason why this is a positive move in spite of the general apathy of the public toward local civic affairs is probably best summed up by one of the commenters on the Knoxville News-Sentinel's website:
Not only will the employed public get to attend, but perhaps some employed citizens can now run for office. How many people can take a half day off to attend a meeting? Many people who would consider running for office have to choose between work and serving. This is not an easy choice if you are responsible to bring income into your household.
I can speak directly to what this person is saying. When I lived in Knox County, I lived right on a Knox Area Transit bus route that ran Monday though Friday. I could have made it to nearly every Commission meeting if these meetings were actually held at a time more convenient for me to attend.
Holding meetings at a time of day when most people would be working makes running for office locally and serving your constituents effectively very difficult-unless you are already a county employee. I struggled with this very issue when I considered running for the Knox County Commission. I had obligations to meet and responsibilities to fulfill on most Mondays at 2 pm. In the end, that was not the issue that caused me to lay down the idea of finishing a race in Knox County-moving did that. Nonetheless, it was something that I struggled with long before filing those initial papers.
Perhaps without realizing it, Knox County has just set an example for other local governments around the State and the nation to follow. Some local government bodies have had the foresight to place their meetings at times when folks are better able to participate, but many others have yet to do so. The principle involved is not merely one of greater public input, but allowing for the possibility that any citizen-regardless of their occupation or background-might have the opportunity to run for local public office and for that citizen to know that they could effectively serve if elected.
Government should not only be open for citizen input, but it should encourage greater citizen service. Even if that turns out to be an unintended consequence of the Commission's move, they have come a long way in one fell swoop to insure that increased public involvement becomes a reality in local government-at leasy in Knox County.
Labels: Local politics