Five years ago, I didn’t know what a County Commissioner was. Today I find myself engaging regularly with them and their staff. I even speak to elected state officials about issues important to the 3-mile barrier island on which I live.
What I have learned in the past five years is that the American people are failing Civics 101 if we even knew much about it from school. And we have paid a significant price for this failure.
Here is the gist of my lesson. Our everyday life is impacted by local issues. That is what is important. And by knowing the local issues, we gain a unique insight into state and even national issues.
Sure, I saw it as my duty to pay attention to national elections. After all, I had to support the party that I was raised to believe in, right? When the ballot listed referendums or local elections, I diligently read about each before casting my vote, but my heart wasn’t in it. Local issues are nuanced, and it really isn’t possible to read about something in one day and know enough to extend a vote the following day.
To cap it off, what you choose to read to educate yourself may be carefully curated to point in one direction, failing to reveal important issues on the other side.
After several years of learning about local government, my mind is overwhelmed. My solution for that is to write.
I am not writing so much to convince anyone that I am right about the failure of Civics 101 – there is always room to debate that very specific complaint. I am writing to sort out for myself what I have learned, and perhaps to provide information that others have not considered and may find helpful.
I will try to stick to short topics and may tackle several of those or just a couple. I’ll be done when I’m done.
And I must offer this disclaimer: if I am the only one who has been clueless about this, I don’t mean to offend those who already have figured all this out. But it has been so transformative to me that I want to share what I’ve learned.
Why Local Government
While we’re watching national news, our local government is making decisions about our water, our trash, our lifestyle, our schools, our roads, our safety, our sanitation, our trees, our land, our business, our heritage, sea level rise, flooding, bike safety, pedestrian safety, vacation rentals, noise, wildlife…. essentially every aspect of our daily lives.
When the federal or state government takes a stand on an issue, it is the local government that must apply for funding dollars and compete with other local governments for that funding. There is never enough funding to go around, so the competition is fierce. Some local governments don’t bother. Many understand how to compete effectively.
Our state – Florida – also budgets billions, available to local governments through application.
How effectively they can make a business case for the funds results in whether that funding is available locally.
Take sea level rise. If you don’t live near the coast this might be a foreign concept but those of us who do are very familiar with the devastation that storm surge flooding can wreak. The new word for dealing with sea level rise is resiliency. The Federal Government has allocated billions of funding to resiliency. The money is available as grants to state and local government only if they apply and are seriously competitive.
If you think all local governments are on top of these opportunities and aggressive in going after them, you are wrong.
Local government could be a city, a county, or other municipality that must identify the need, apply for the grant and administer the paperwork associated with the grant.
In a diverse county with diverse districts, how does local government make the decision about what communities will get help?
I suppose that the answer to that question varies by local government.
My experience has been that the citizens of the community are the ones that make their case (or not).
Think about that. I started out hypothesizing that citizens often do not become involved in local government. But some do and their communities may reap the benefit of their activism.
What does that mean for those who do not take an active role in local government? I have found that it often means that they lose out.
This is an example of how and why citizens need to take an active role in local government. Citizens’ groups can make a difference.
Sometimes citizens’ groups run into bigger obstacles – lobbyists.
But that’s for another day.