It’s weird to think that in one of the first democratic nations on the planet that a statement like “government works” is now controversial. But the belief that government is incompetent, wasteful, and lazy has been going on for years, and it’s part of our conditioning as Americans.
I bet many people driving down West Napa Street in Sonoma these days have had a series of predictable thoughts, such as “Why the heck are they ripping the road up again?” or “There goes the government wasting money on something we don’t need.”
While we automatically assume the worst, the reality of this project is the exact opposite. The water main replacement along West Napa Street represents the best of government. This was an intelligent and deft move by the City to do necessary infrastructure repair, the replacement of a leaky, 60-year-old water main, at no cost to the city. The job will save the money and water, two precious resources. It was a smart decision, one that included careful consideration at City Hall.
Another charge often leveled at government workers is that they don’t care, they don’t listen and that any venue for public comment or interaction is a falsehood where no serious consideration takes place. Their minds are already made up to screw us, so what’s the point of trying? But in my experience, that’s simply not true.
Recently, during the appeal of the environmental impact report for the Sonoma Hotel Project, city councilmembers read through 150 pages of documents dumped on them just two days ahead of the vote. Councilmembers and staff took the time to take meeting after meeting with constituent after constituent as well as, I’m sure, developers and other interested parties. They sat attentively through a four-hour session that included over and hour of public comment. They then unanimously agreed that it was important to take more time to digest the information, and sat through another public meeting to finally agree to do it all again, because the appeal motion on behalf of concerned citizens proved the EIR didn’t meet the necessary standards.
That decision means, ultimately, they’ll have to go through the entire process yet again. If that isn’t hard work for what are essentially public volunteers, I don’t know what is. If that doesn’t meet the standard of taking time to consider the opinions of the constituency, what does?
For most, our noticeable interactions with government are almost always negative. We get pulled over by police for ridiculous infractions and charged hundreds of dollars we can’t afford. We have to account for “onerous” regulations when running businesses. We have to stop at that new stop sign that’s been put there for “no reason”. We pay taxes that go “nowhere”. We drive over roads that are unpaved and send our children to troubled schools. When this is the face of government, it’s easy to see why we’re downtrodden, uninterested, and pessimistic. We don’t recognize that the city just saved us money and energy production by changing our streetlights to LEDs. We don’t see that the local police chiefs are meeting with immigrant community members to help calm fears of abuse and deportation.
What we have to recognize is that the government is us — it’s directed by the people who engage with it. Not enough people do. If “didn’t vote” was a candidate in 2016, it would have won 41 states and 471 electoral votes.
If government is something we dislike, it’s completely our fault, and it’s important to recognize that in a representative democracy. With a little effort, a little time set aside for the issues you care about, you can actually have a big effect.
When we continue to focus on the negative aspects of government, we support belief that government action is always wrongheaded and corrupt. This, in turn, leads us to believe the situation is hopeless and we, as citizens, take ourselves out of the process. As a result, our voices aren’t heard and the community is ran by the small percentage of people who do engage, who do demand change. The decisions made by officials are influenced by this small minority; the masses who chose to stay silent are handed a decision they had nothing to do with. Which, in turn, leads them to believe that government action is always wrongheaded and corrupt. The self-fulfilling cycle begins again.
We face a lot of challenges in the next 50 years as a community, a state, and a country. If citizens don’t start appreciating and harnessing the power and success government can have and work to direct that power, then the future will remain in the hands of the businesses and small batch of citizens that do.
Government is good, and it is the best tool we have to dress problems of housing, inequality, and environmental concerns. It’s time again to ask not what the government can do for us, but what we can do for our government.