We face tremendous challenges, locally and globally, with the climate crisis posing the existential threat of our time. This reality must be met collaboratively, creatively, and aggressively. There is not a minute to waste to get it together… to get all of us together.
Voice was given to this imperative at recent launch of Montgomery County’s Climate Change Planning Initiative. County Executive Marc Elrich took heart that over 100 citizens with a wide range of professional and civic acumen had submitted applications to serve on the technical work groups. Councilmember Tom Hucker’s words resonated, “We need to unleash the power of expertise of our residents. We are lucky to have a smart talented pool to advise us as to how we will tackle this emergency together.”
These are good words. But are we poised to do that?
When Montgomery County rises to this ultimatum, we will have a model to use to address myriad other crucial local issues, the solutions of which will benefit from meaningful public participation.
With that inspiration, and some of my own recent experiences in mind, I thought to explore the current state of public participation in Montgomery County to see how it plays out day to day at the local level. I reached out to folks, making time for calls and meetings fully expecting that few would have time or the inclination.
I was wrong. Stories and sentiments were freely offered from residents in Wheaton, Damascus, Silver Spring, Poolesville, Bethesda, Clarksburg, Boyds, and beyond. The responses were both sobering and instructive.
And here’s what happened with my recent foray into local government decision-making:
- With 15 days’ notice of a public hearing addressing an important land use proposal, we only had three days to review staff recommendations and hundreds of pages of attachments. So, a group of concerned citizens, municipal representatives, and advocates from and for the Agricultural Reserve got down to it.
- We arrived at the hearing prepared to present our concerns. The land use proposal was next on the agenda. From behind the dais, the man who presides over the hearings came towards our group confronting several of us he recognized as we were taking our seats. “I do not want to hear from all of you. Pick one person and make your case,” he commanded. Shocked but not deterred, we pushed back, reminding him that this was a legally required public hearing, that we six stakeholders had signed up to speak, and would do so. His terse response: “I better not hear the same thing again and again. We’ve received a bunch of form emails.”
Chill was effectively cast, and I feel we were less effective as a result. And to have had the hundreds of emails from concerned citizens that were written, many thoughtful and personalized, dismissed added to our deflation.
This experience is apparently not unique, as evidenced by other disquieting remarks leveled at local government of not being heard, of giving up, of feeling that there was no seat at the table for residents to have meaningful exchanges. One resident said, “It can take years of showing up and paying attention to be able to truly follow and be part of the system.”
Another remarked, “I occasionally participate, and feel I am listened to at the time. Then the authorities go ahead and do whatever they want. So why participate?” “If you are not a member of the party in power, they won’t listen to you.” And this sentiment was shared by several: “Why have hearings to develop zoning and conditions on land uses and little or no real enforcement?”
Importantly, the criticism was more broadly aimed as well: “We have issues that are a reflection of what is going on nationally with name calling, polarization, coarse dialogue.”
Folks obviously have been thinking about what could be done to improve public participation with and trust in local governance…
- “If we want to build a sustainable community with an engaged base, we need to make it easier to engage meaningfully on many different levels. One thing would be to livestream more meetings so folks with kids and tough schedules can participate.”
- “Utilize citizen advisory boards and committees for more than just rubber stamping.”
- “We need to resurrect the office of the People’s Counsel perhaps using the successful Office of Consumer Protection as a model. County businesses have government staff to guide and assist them through the complexity of our local system. The people should have this type of resource too.”
- “People should reach out to one another and collaborate like they did with the way they protected Ten Mile Creek.”
- “After the Gazette papers folded, we lost a watchdog. We need better in-depth investigative reporting to hold local government to account.”
- “Publish a good clearinghouse of resources. 311 is not really effective.”
- “Get out of the Rockville offices and into the community more often.”
- “Voters must better educate themselves prior to elections, on both the issues and the candidates and vote in the primaries!”
Direct democracy through public participation promotes accountability and greater understanding. It builds a foundation of trust. Citizens’ input helps to enhance public policy by sparking innovation and improving responsiveness to community needs. When the public is disregarded or thwarted in their effort to participate meaningfully in local governance they feel disempowered, deflated, defeated and many may withdraw.
While this sense of fatigue and near surrender was conveyed by a number of those I spoke to, an equal number were eager to improve things. For those in the community, the message here is one of solidarity and an invitation to feel empowered to take part in this most important aspect of our democracy. For our local government leaders, both elected and staff – please take this message as intended – a call to action with a sincere belief that all of our needs will be more easily met through non-adversarial collaboration.
Let’s get down to it together.
— CAROLINE TAYLOR
The writer is executive director of Montgomery Countryside Alliance, a nonprofit group that promotes economic, land-use and transportation policies that preserve the natural environment, open spaces and rural lands in Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve.