Open dialogue may be only lure to pursuade turned-off to tune in
Editor's note: We begin a new weekly column today featuring veteran Northumber-land County newspaperman Jake Betz.
In its reporting of the results of the 1945 general election, the first since the Allies defeated Germany and Japan, The Shamokin News-Dispatch lamented the relatively low voter turnout. Only 65 percent of registered voters went to the polls for an election in which hotly contested races for two county judgeships and three county row offices topped the ballot.
Fast forward to the 2011 general election in which a five-candidate race for Northumberland County commissioner was the marquee attraction. Despite the many gallons of ink devoted to the campaign by the three county newspapers, the turnout was only 32.5 percent.
Vinny Clausi, Rick Shoch and Stephen Bridy won the election, but more than 36,000 people passed up the opportunity to vote for them or the two losing candidates, Frank Sawicki and Merle Phillips. Sixty-seven percent of the county electorate - whether because of pressing personal or professional business, lack of enthusiasm for any of the candidates or plain old civic laziness - didn't bother to go to the polls.
And that's just taking into account the people on the voter rolls - 54,404 of them, to be exact, as of Nov. 8, 2011.
At the time of the 2010 U.S. Census, Northumberland County had 75,085 residents 18 years of age and older. So that means (rusty subtraction skills, don't fail me now), on Election Day 2011, approximately 20,000 adult citizens weren't registered and were therefore ineligible to vote.
The current commissioners were elected by a pool of voters that amounted to less than a quarter of the county's voting age population. Incidentally, none of the elected commissioners received a majority of the votes that were actually cast.
Threat to democracy
The disinterested and self-disenfranchised majority has no cause to complain. Candidates with the most votes win elections, and the grown-ups who actually show up at the polls earn the right to be "the deciders." Tuning out is just as much of a personal choice as turning out; no one can be forced to vote, or even to care about who wins.
But in a country where personal freedom is so cherished and so expensive, since it has been won and maintained through sacrifices in blood, the lack of participation in the political process is arguably more of a threat to our American democracy (with a small "d") than home-grown subversives and external enemies.
But, why the apathy?
Because it's not unusual for non-voters to flaunt their political indifference as a badge of honor ("I never vote and I'm darn proud of it"), officeholders may be tempted to write off this prevailing apathy without giving any thought to what caused it. Politicians are not widely admired these days, and the institutions of government are themselves increasingly held in disrepute. The public no longer has faith in government's ability to respond to society's problems.
County commissioners, past and present, didn't necessarily cause this public mistrust, at least not all by themselves. However, the approval of a policy to limit public comment at commissioners' meetings to two minutes can't help but re-enforce the avalanche of cynicism. Free-speech limitation policies such as this convey a message - maybe unintended, maybe not - that what ordinary people think simply doesn't matter and that public officials don't always have to listen.
Let's stipulate right now that the chairman of a board or president of a council has every right to maintain order at public meetings. No one, not even politicians, should be expected to deal with rude insinuations and personal attacks. And certainly, no citizen is entitled to monopolize a discussion. Chaos would reign and legitimate public business would be stymied if people in the audience were allowed to speak out of turn, talk incessantly and belittle other attendees and elected officials. When this happens, a judicious use of the gavel is warranted. But just because a comment is unpleasant, unwelcome or contrary to conventional wisdom doesn't mean it is out of order.
Time to listen
Surely commissioners can envision a scenario where a county citizen might enter the meeting room with a question, observation or yes, even a constructive proposal that warrants more than two minutes of the board's attention. If nothing else, the commissioners' annual salary of $61,000 should be sufficient incentive for them to spend whatever time is needed - all day if necessary - to listen to each and every reasonable, rational and respectful comment offered by their constituents at a public meeting.
A board chairman's flexibility to extend the two minutes can only go so far, because, let's face it, there isn't a human being alive who wouldn't be inclined to listen to one person's accolades all day while disposing of unpleasant criticism as quickly as possible.
Maybe - just maybe - if elected officials welcomed the public with open arms, invited dialogue, handled thoughtful dissent with grace and professionalism, disagreed with colleagues and citizens without being disagreeable and gave more than lip service to real transparency in government, people's faith would be restored and they would once again cherish their right to vote.
(Betz is an assistant editor at The News-Item.)