OUR CORNER: Everyday citizens make a difference
September 13, 2010 · 1:05 PM
A few years back when I turned 30, I tried to run for the U.S. Senate.
Though my goal was 50 votes, the lawyers at the paper wouldn’t go for it (something about every time my name appearing – even bylines – it being considered in-kind advertising), but that didn’t stop me from learning about the process and getting ready.
It is remarkably simple: you collect about 1,200 signatures and voila, you are on the ballot.
But I wanted to do it to make the point that this country is designed so any idiot can run for office (in fact, that was my slogan: “Any idiot can run, so why not vote Beckley? He’s any idiot!”).
It all goes back to the idea of the citizen legislature, that the people, each with their unique talents and interests, can make decisions better than any sort of professional political class; that our collective talents and knowledge can make the best choices for our society.
This was brought home to me at a couple of recent meetings of the Bonney Lake City Council.
The city is nearing completion on its new Interim Justice Center, the first new building in the “downtown” area of Bonney Lake, over near the library and discussion on the final details on building still pops up from time to time.
The discussions don’t usually make the paper because, well, to be honest, few people realize just how boring democracy really is. And frankly, it is no real concern to the readers what type of chairs they buy for the new council chambers (that took, I think, 15 minutes, by the way).
But in one recent case, I couldn’t help but be riveted by a discussion that would never have happened in another city.
It revolved around what kind of cabling to use in the new council chambers and, as the topic came up, I’ll admit, I got out my phone and texted to find out the score that night’s Philadelphia Phillies game.
But I soon turned back to the meeting as a discussion had unexpectedly broken out over an issue I thought would be a simple unanimous vote (they usually are).
And it wasn’t even something interesting: They were talking about the type and cost of cable to be put in the walls!
But the topic came up because one of the council members, Deputy Mayor Dan Swatman, makes his living in the cable industry. He has actual, specific knowledge about the topic and had some questions.
First, he wanted to know why it seemed so expensive. Second, he wanted the council to know that they might be able to save some money by using a lesser quality cable in the room, since it was planned to be a temporary facility anyway.
Swatman had concerns that the city was buying the highest grade cable for a building they planned on being out of in a few years.
The rest of the council listened, asked a couple of questions of their own and then tabled the matter to a workshop for further discussion.
It was a great example of exactly how a city council is supposed to work: The staff made their recommendation and it moved on to the consent agenda; before the council reviewed it, one member brought up some new questions and moved it to the full agenda for discussion; there was a brief powwow over the new info; and the matter was sent back for further review.
I know how dull that sounds, but you’d be surprised how many cities do not function in such an open manner. In most cities, the council wants to present a unified front so everything is decided before it ever gets to a vote so there is rarely any real discussion from the dais.
So to see them do it in an actual meeting was striking.
In Bonney Lake, that is not always the case, and in the cable matter, it worked in their favor: Bonney Lake got a better deal.
Chuck McEwen, the city’s information services coordinator, pulled the item and sent it out for a re-bidding process. In the end, the city saved approximately $1,500 on the cabling, though McEwen still suggested the council keep the higher quality cabling since there was no guarantee they’d be out of the building before the end of the lifespan of the cheaper cable.
It’s not a big amount at all in the context of the city’s budget, but in these tough economic times, every dollar helps.
During the meeting, Swatman deferred to the city’s expert, saying that the city hires people to make those recommendation, and voted for the cable.
But Swatman’s expertise and specialized knowledge from his day job saved the city a small amount of money and because of his background the council was able to discuss and better understand the matter.
And that would never have happened in a city where a member of the cable industry didn’t happen to be on the council.
Unfortunately, once you get beyond the local level, the idea of the citizen legislature begins to erode. All but three states (including Oregon) have professional legislatures, meaning that when session ends, they don’t have to go back to a day job.
In some ways this is good. I mean, all one has to do is look at the mess that the initiative process has made of things in California and Washington to see the importance of having professionals make these decisions.
But in other ways, I don’t like it as it seems like these days once someone gets elected, they have to die before we can get them out of office. Plus, we now have a situation where it seems like almost every candidate is a lawyer.
Which is probably how we get such bulky, wordy laws filled with legalese and loopholes.
I can’t help but think it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Originally, public service was supposed to be service, something you did to help your country before going back to your farm or shop.
George Washington, for example, gave up the presidency of his own accord so he could return to Monticello and farm. (It was this decision – to give up power when he could have been president for life – that is Washington’s greatest legacy, in my opinion. Which is saying a lot considering that dude led a ragtag militia over the greatest army in the world.)
So I just can’t help but think we’ve lost something by moving to a professional politician class. It is one of the few things the Tea Partiers and I see eye-to-eye on.
Now, I personally would prefer those candidates to have a better understanding of history and government than the vast majority of tea party types I see on TV, but I suppose it is at least a start.
I have said in the past that one of the tea party’s greatest (and only) good points is that it has gotten many more people fired up about politics and has led them to get involved.
The hope now is that they remember that while professional politicians may be a dangerous choice, electing idiots is an even worse alternative than electing incumbents or lawyers.
But if one guy can save his city a couple thousand bucks through his job experience, think of what hundreds of guys like that could do for the country.