Technically, our local forms of government are not participatory democracies.
Officially, participatory democracy is direct democracy, in the sense that all citizens are actively involved in all important decisions. The definition commonly refers to movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement or the Women’s Suffrage Movement, that gather a group of people who democratically make decisions about the direction of the group.
But the phrase “participatory (or participation) democracy” has come to mean the right of citizens in a democracy to participate. I would even say it means the obligation of citizens to participate in the decisions made by their governmental representatives that impact the lives of all citizens.
Let’s use a recent local decision by the Glasgow City Council that has been talked about frequently in the last week.
On Monday at their regular meeting, members of the council voted unanimously to pass the first reading of an ordinance that would eliminate benefits for council members, but it would raise the base pay for each from around $8,000 a year to $12,000 a year.
The cut in benefits with the present makeup of the council coupled with the increase in pay would save the city about $42,000 per year. If passed on second reading at the next city council meeting, scheduled for a week from Monday, the medical benefits would not be dropped until Jan. 1, 2011. This particular city council would not be dropping its benefits, but the raise could go into effect on July 1. That’s because the city’s budget is done on a fiscal year that begins July 1, 2010, and runs until June 30, 2011. So for six months, this city council would carry benefits and a pay increase, as I understand it.
That’s interesting considering this is the same city council that has approved a budget for this fiscal year that had nearly a $2 million dollar hole in it. The balance for the 2008-09 budget was $4.95 million. The projected balance for the 2009-10 budget was $2.95 million. This city council did not pass a balanced budget last year when working on the 2009-10 budget. It passed a budget with projected revenues of $11.36 million and projected expenses of $13.35 million. Revenue was expected to drop by more than $800,000 from 2008-09, but expenses were reduced by less than $27,000, according to the City of Glasgow annual budget report.
How will trimming $42,000 more out of the budget really help?
And actually, the full effects of that reduction will not be seen until the 2011-12 budget cycle.
Let me back up for a bit. Unless there is some significant growth in revenue somewhere other than city employment tax, it will be difficult for Glasgow to even meet this fiscal year’s revenue projection. That is because the city has taken a significant hit in employment tax receipts in the last two years.
The budget process for the upcoming fiscal year will begin next month. The actual revenue for 2009-10 fiscal year through three quarters will be available in April so that city officials can weigh how accurate their projections of revenues and expenses have been.
I’ve gone through all of these items thus far because these were some of the things brought to my attention over the last week since the city council had the first reading of the “benefits and raise” ordinance.
My response has been, generally, “That’s very interesting, but these are things it sounds like the citizens of Glasgow need to address with their city council.”
One thing any citizen can do is to request to be on the agenda for the upcoming city council meeting so that they can publically have the opportunity to ask questions and get answers.
In order to get on the agenda, one must contact the mayor’s office and request to be on the agenda. They must state the purpose for which they want to be heard, and they must provide the name or names of the individuals who would like to speak. Very often, one person will be allowed to speak for a group that has come to address the same concern. Also, there will be a certain amount of time alloted for an individual to have the floor.
All of this, by the way, should be done in a mature, respectful and civilized manner.
Participating in a democracy by voting is one part of a larger freedom that allows the citizens of a community, and our nation, to make change. A free press is one part of a larger freedom because it gives citizens the right to be informed.
But the part of a larger freedom that is often overlooked, or under appreciated, is participation — either by running for office or by being sure to take advantage of laws in place that allow for our voices to be heard. If you don’t like a decision made by your elected officials, let them know by asking them to publically explain their decisions.
James Brown is editor of the Glasgow Daily Times. He can be reached by e-mail at jbrown(at)glasgowdailytimes.com.