Everyone Is An Expert

I have been covering small government stories since I first started writing for a newspaper.

When I was on the BSU “Northern Student” newspaper I covered the student council. When I was just an intern at the Pine River Journal I covered Jenkins City Council meetings. Now, I cover the Backus and Pine River city councils first hand, the Pine River-Backus School Board first hand and the Emily, East Gull Lake, and Jenkins councils through reports from the clerks and administrators.

I know first hand how much time it can take to attend regular council meetings, and even then I wonder why nobody ever attends these meetings unless they are there to complain.

The scene at these council meetings is pretty much the same every week. I sit amongst city employees waiting to give their reports. There’s often the maintenance person, the engineer, the fire chief and a smattering of others. Pine River always has the city attorney, Police Chief and sewer district representative. The PR-B school board always has the business manager, often the food service manager. I am the only person in that meeting that is not associated with the board/council with only a few exceptions. Somehow, this fact does not change even now that there are many contested positions up for election on these boards/councils. Do you see something wrong with that?

Let me assure you, I have nothing against the people running for these positions. I know almost all of them personally. One is on the fire department with me, I used to work for another, I have interviewed most of them for stories, I used to buy my car tabs from another, and so on so on so on. Most of them own businesses (and hence, taxes are the big motivator here).

I won’t lie, knowing them personally only makes me feel more disappointed in them especially since most of them are running because they are angry about the way the current board/council has run itself (has issued taxes) over the last term… but how do they know?

At the Pine River Council meetings the mayoral candidate (who isn’t on the council) attends meetings often enough to have an idea how things go. The Backus Council mayoral candidate (not the incumbent) has, until this month, attended every meeting I have ever been to. Only liver cancer stopped him. I commend these two. At the Pine River-Backus School Board, the only unaffiliated person aside from me who comes to the council meetings is one of the local pastors… and she isn’t on the ballot! (I also commend her.)

How can you look at your local governing officials and say “They are ruining our town” or “they are overtaxing us” or virtually any other complaint IF YOU DON’T ATTEND MEETINGS!? You are judging someone based on what basically amounts to rumor or at the very least second hand information. There are limited sources of information outside the meetings.

• You can sometimes listen to a recording. This is the best alternative, though it takes just as much time. Really, you might as well attend the meeting.

• You can read the minutes. These are good, but you cannot get an idea of the true extent to which the council discusses an issue. It is always paraphrased. You are missing so much information.

• You can read your local newspaper. This suffers from the same problem as the minutes, except that the paper is even more constrained for space. We try to give you the most important details, but you can rarely form a full, valid judgement from these alone. Please keep reading them anyhow!

• You can talk to your friends at the coffee shop. This, I suspect is the main source of information regarding local government. Ole’s cousin Bjorn told Lena this, therefore we need someone on the council who will work for us.

If you hope to run for election in your town, please take this advice to heart. YOU HAVE NO REASON NOT TO ATTEND COUNCIL/BOARD MEETINGS! If you don’t, you don’t really know if your ire towards a specific board/council member is warranted. Ever had someone talk about you behind your back even though they don’t know you? That’s now you! Furthermore, you have no idea what the job you are applying to entails. Running uninformed is irresponsible and not fair to the people who would vote for you.

They might not like the incumbents, but if you find yourself elected and realize everything you would do to fix your local government is illegal, what happens then? What happens when Ole’s cousin’s friend’s boss was wrong and it turns out the candidates you hated so much really didn’t do what you always blamed them for? You may have replaced someone with experience. At the very least, attending meetings gives you an upper leg against the incoming candidates who don’t attend the meetings. There really is no reason for a candidate not to attend.

I know what most people feel. “I work for a living. I can’t make it to a meeting every month.” Repeat that again and again and again until you realize that people on the council/board HAVE TO ATTEND A MONTHLY MEETING in addition to trainings, committee meetings, local events and all sorts of other obligations. If you don’t have time to attend meetings, you don’t have time to be a council/board member. If you have ever used this excuse, it is my honest opinion you should drop out of the race.

Even if you don’t plan on running, but you have complaints about how your local government is run, I have the same advice as above. Nobody ever attends council meetings unless they are upset about something. It is safe to assume, in these cases, they don’t even know what lead up to the action you don’t like. Do you think they are picking on your friend? Let me ask you a theoretical question.

You meet a friend one day and they are complaining about the police. You ask what happened, they say, “I got pulled over and ticketed and I wasn’t even doing anything!” Do you buy it or do you need more information? Is it possible they were speeding? That’s kind of what it is like to get angry at local government members if you don’t attend the meetings.

Do you think your civic responsibility is limited to voting? Think again. Honestly, there should be so many people attending council/board meetings that they need to be held in an auditorium. That will never be the case, but at the very least the people who are running for office should be at the meetings. The people who have bad things to say about their local government should at least attend occasionally. Unless they do, they are unreliable sources about what is wrong with the current council. Where do they get their info?

Now, for an anecdote. My oldest brother recently decided that he might like to run for his local city council. I told him in earnest, “If you want a leg up on your opponents, attend the meetings.” Without fail, he responded, “I don’t have time for meetings! I’m a working man!”

…Of course he would say that.

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