Public distrust of government has been around since the beginning of organized rule, and it is no worse now than it was 100 or even hundreds of years ago.
In the 14th Century Florentine Republic, in what would become Italy some 500 years later, skepticism of government was so great that voters elected new rulers every two months.
Clearly, we have them beat in terms of political stability, but it remains that the strength and effectiveness of our system depends on the public’s participation in and awareness of government affairs.
That’s why it’s disconcerting to see so few people take advantage of the opportunities our governments provide for community engagement.
It isn’t government’s fault, in other words, if no one attends or follows meetings, hearings and informational sessions. Yet, it still has to defend itself from charges that it doesn’t keep the public informed.
Two cases in point in Berlin: last week’s sparsely attended meetings on resiliency, or how town planning (and spending) will need to reflect changing climate conditions, and the upcoming special meeting on the town budget.
The budget, which almost always is connected to one public complaint or another, is discussed, debated and developed in open meetings. The process also requires the mayor and council to hold two public hearings — when citizens can be heard — before any spending plan can be adopted.
And now town government must hold a third informal hearing of sorts because the public doesn’t know what’s going on? If that’s so, it’s the public’s own fault for not doing its part to fulfill the good governance equation.
While government must be responsive to the public, it can’t do that if the public doesn’t want to pay attention. Criticizing government is every citizen’s right, but for government to be responsive, citizens are obligated to make the effort to understand how government works.