Local Government 114 – Public Participation in the Governing Process

By Mike Barhorst

Barhorst

America was founded as a representative democracy – simply put, we elect individuals to represent our interests.  Certainly that is the case in every jurisdiction with which I am familiar.  Most readers know that Sidney is divided into four wards.  There is a councilmember elected from each of the four wards.  In addition, there are three representatives elected at-large, representing the entire city.  As a result, each citizen of Sidney has a majority of four of the seven-member council representing their interests.

That said, none of us are mind-readers.  We make decisions at every meeting, and can only follow the dictates of our conscience if we do not receive feedback from citizens concerning the topics on which we are voting.   In this increasingly technological world, perhaps the best way to contact members of council is by email.  Each member’s email address is on the city’s website (www.sidneyoh.com).    Email also allows constituents the opportunity to communicate when it is convenient for you, and the councilmember to respond when it is convenient for them.

Many constituents make contact by telephone.  While I would not dissuade that method of contact, I would encourage individuals to be cognizant of the time of day they are calling.  Receiving a telephone call at 3:00 a.m. about a pothole that has been in front of your house for months, wondering what to do with a raccoon that is in your garage and has been there for the past week, or how to get rid of a rat in your basement (yes, unfortunately I’ve received those calls) is not only annoying to the official receiving the call, but not likely to garner much sympathy as a result of the timing of the call.

Most calls from constituents are complaints.  A neighbor’s annoying loud music, a tractor-trailer rig parked on the street, a neighbor’s dog(s) barking at midnight – the list is seemingly endless.   The three examples listed are all complaints that could normally be handled by the Sidney Police Department, and do not need to be routed through a member of council.  The examples listed are non-emergencies, and notification should be via the department’s business number (937.498.2351).

Contact about legislative issues (i.e., I have questions about the contract with the Ohio Department of Transportation for the elderly and disabled fare assistance program) are certainly appropriate, and enable councilmembers to gain a better understanding of the “pulse of the community”.  When making contact, address the individual you are contacting with respect, be specific with respect to your concern, and outline the outcome you would like to see.   Be cognizant of the amount of time the contact you have made is taking while being prepared to answer questions that may be asked about your position.

I cannot speak for all of council, but I attempt to get back to constituents within 24 hours.  However, occasionally a telephone number is lost, an email address is incorrect, or I have a difficult time reading my own writing.  As a result, a good rule of thumb from my perspective is that if you have not heard back in the amount of time you were expecting to be contacted, make contact again.

Constituents are always welcome at council meetings.  As noted in previous columns, meetings are held on the first, second and fourth Mondays of each month.  Public input is welcome at the meetings on the second and fourth Mondays.  If you wish to address an item that is on the agenda, you need to wait until that item is being discussed.  Once councilmembers have made their comments, the presiding officer will ask if there are any public comments.  Those wishing to make comment should simply stand, wait to be recognized by the presiding officer, then clearly state your name, your address and once that is noted by the city clerk, make the appropriate comments.

If you wish to address a matter that is not on the agenda, shortly after the meeting begins at 6:30 p.m., there is a “public comment” agenda item during each meeting.  That is the appropriate time to stand, wait for the presiding officer to recognize you, clearly state your name and address and then deliver your remarks.  All remarks must be made to the presiding officer, and the chair will then either respond or ask a staff member to respond.

It is helpful to know that you wish to address council in advance, and I would encourage you to contact City Clerk Kari Egbert to let her know that you will be attending and the subject you wish to address.  If you do so, questions you have may be answered during the meeting.

Similarly, each citizen also lives in a village, a township, a county and in a state.  Each jurisdiction holds public meetings (check the jurisdictional website for the time of meetings).  Similarly, public comment is solicited at these meetings.  Some village meetings I have attended are pretty informal – others much less so.

Certainly the meetings of township trustees are less formal in our area, but that may not be the case in townships where the population has grown significantly.  Even in the smaller townships and villages, minutes are taken.

That is the case as well at meetings of the county commissioners.  The meeting room for the Shelby County Commissioners is small and meetings are less formal than those that are conducted in counties with larger populations.  While rules may vary from village to village, township to township and county to county, a couple simple questions to the clerk prior to the meeting should provide an easy roadmap for navigating the agenda.

I hope this information has been useful.  In the next column, I’ll discuss communication with state legislators, and how you can have an impact on bills being considered in Columbus.