Saturday, August 18, 2007

Citizen Oversight and Public Participation

Citizen Oversight and Public Participation

If you read the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, or any of the wittings of our founding fathers, the over-riding philosophy was about freedom. And their directive to all future generations of Americans to come was that freedom isn’t free and the price of freedom is eternal vigilance in protecting those freedoms. Freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and all of those rights granted under the Bill of Rights, must be preserved through public participation and oversight of their governments at all levels.

“Dissent is the highest form of patriotism!”

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson said that: “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism!” Ben Franklin urged the people to be protective of your rights at all cost and added that: “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security, deserve neither!”

The words of the founding fathers go as far as to advocate a violent revolutions to take back the government from tyrannical leaders. This was the motivation for the Second Amendment with the right to bear arms. The clear intent of that Amendment was that a well armed militia "being necessary to the security of a free State". A militia at that time was a voluntary people’s army that was formed to take back control over a territory or the whole country. The founding fathers knew that if we were not vigilant, then tyranny would certainly follow.

Public Participation is the friend of any politician that is trying to do the people’s business. It provides them with valuable input and new ideas and how to create responsible and responsive government.

However, in this day and age of lobbyist and special interest, politicians have increasingly come to look at the public participation as a nuisance and those that disagree with their agenda as the enemy.

Thomas Jefferson addressed this issue when he said: "I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it."

But modern day politicians have trended to ignore the warnings of our founding fathers and the underlying philosophy that drives the Constitution. Consequently, they have attempted to restrict and limit the public’s access involvement in the public process. These days there is almost always a time limit, usually three minutes, for which a citizen is allowed to speak on any issue. Bigger municipalities like Los Angeles have reduced the time limit to one minute. If you educate yourself on a particular issue and attempt to present an articulate argument, three minutes is almost never adequate to speak your mind.

What has developed is an us vs. them mentality where citizens are having to go to battle with their elected officials just to participate in the way that our founding fathers anticipated we should. Countless lawsuits have resulted while meanwhile citizens are routinely interrupted, cut off, and even arrested when they try and exercise their First Amendments. As a result, case law and legislative law has come to dictate the parameters of how a open government should operate.

The Brown Act has become the premiere over riding law on open government in California. Anyone that has followed any city council or county supervisor meetings is undoubtedly familiar with The Brown Act. Enacted in 1988, and is officially known as the Ralph M Brown Act and is actually part of the California Government Code, Sections 54950-54962. It was enacted to attempt to shed some light on backdoor politics and protect citizen participation and oversight.

The Brown Act basically states that all local governments must:
-Post notice and an agenda for their meetings, at least 72 hours prior to the meeting.
-Notify the media of special meetings.
-Hold meetings in the jurisdiction of the agency.
-Not require a "sign in" for anyone.
-Allow non-disruptive recordings and broadcast of meetings.
-Allow the public to address them.
-Conduct only public votes with no secret ballots.
-Treat all distributed documents as public.

City councils and county supervisors have increasingly tried to skirt these laws by taking agenda items into closed session. I have seen a rise in use of the closed sessions to “close-out” the public from what is going on in their government. Some politicians have remained true to public participation and the Constitution by resisting the use of closed sessions. One councilwoman in San Diego has refused to participate in any closed sessions at all.

Throughout my life I have been committed to speaking out on issues that I feel strongly about, and feel that I can add something to the debate. I make a practice of speaking out at council meetings, County Board of Supervisors, the State Capital or other public forums. I have also participated as an activist in rallies and demonstrations on those issues. I believe in writing “letters to the editor” and to your elected officials. I have also done a fair amount of talk radio which can be an excellent way to get your message out and participate in citizen oversight.

Here in Barstow, I have had strong differences of opinions, on a range of issues about policy issues of the Council, most notably the Mayor. Top of that list would be Indian Gaming as I am 100% convinced that the Barwest project will never ever succeed. And yet Barwest has bought influence and had some of our local leaders compromise the institutions in the process. They have corrupted our political process and violated our elections.

Some of the other issues I care about involve economic development, proper community planning, bringing green energy to Barstow, youth activities, local environmental concerns, and the Hinkley human sludge threat, just to mention a few. With the election last November of the two Barwest candidates, (Tim Sylva and Julie Hackbarth McIntyre) Mayor Dale now enjoys (and abuses) the power of having a guaranteed majority vote on every issue. I often find issues of public policy that I disagree with but I am under increasing personal attack for speaking out.

I always try to research any issue I speak out on. And I try to speak the best educated truth that I can bring to the “public comment and participation” segment of our Council Meetings. But those who don’t like what I may have to say have chosen to make personal attacks on me and my family instead of sticking with the facts of the issues involved. People that know me know that I will always speak my heart and with the passion of believing that it is the truth as best I know it.

In the future, I intend to continue speaking out on issues when I disagree with government policy. I am proud of my record of speaking truth to power. Martin Luther King used to say that: “The only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing. I would encourage all citizens, Republican and Democrat alike, to become more involved in citizen oversight at all levels of government. I believe it is more import to speak out and protect the spirit of the Constitution, than it is to enter the popularity contest involved in worrying about the negative personal attacks from those ignorant and disrespectful of our American heritage. My definition of treason definitely includes those that would suppress public participation and dissent.

It is imperative that we heed the warning of Thomas Jefferson when he cautioned that:

"Experience hath shown, that even under the best forms (of government) those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny."

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