TOWN MEETINGS MAY BE LONG, BUT THE REWARDS ARE GREAT

Burlington County Times, July 1, 2002

Tomorrow night, July 2, I’ll be attending the annual reorganization meeting of the Evesham Township Council. It’s the session at which newly elected members are sworn into office and Township representatives are appointed to various committees and boards. As a member of the Evesham Township Library Committee, I am invited every year to attend the session.

It’s a long meeting, and repetitious, with long lists of names and the same legal formula being read for each appointment.

I don’t have a lot of patience for sitting and listening. I often bring needle work with me to conferences. I always have a book in my purse in case I get stuck somewhere, such as an opening of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge or a doctor’s waiting room that’s furnished only with outdated People Magazines. In college, I discovered that I could look like I was taking careful notes while I was writing letters. (Today, I’d be sending email or checking the web on a laptop computer.) When I watch TV, I do crossword puzzles or crochet. When I surf the web, I play computer games while waiting for downloads. I try to garden and bird watch simultaneously.

So why do I go? The reception following the session is very nice, the food is plentiful and tasty, the company is pleasant. But is that enough of a reason for me to sit through a couple of hours of droning?

Last November, I wrote in this column: “Every time I attend a township meeting, I feel that I am seeing America at her best, democracy in action. True, there are parts that I find silly, such as the ritual repeating of the legal phrases each and every time a motion is made; and there are parts I find disturbing, such as the opening prayer which, ecumenical as it may be, still seems to me to be a breach in the wall between Church and State. But everyone gets a chance to speak his or her mind; everyone gets a chance to rail against a proposal or speak in favor of it. Meetings sometimes go on for hours longer than expected to give the public its voice.”

And that is the reason I attend.

The genius of the American system of governance is the way it blends local control with a centralized authority. The Civil War was fought not to free the slaves; nor was its aim only to guarantee a supply of Southern raw materials for the industrialized North. It was fought in part to decide the extent of States’ rights vs. those of the Federal government.

That tension between the States and the Federal government, between the local municipalities and the State governments continues today. At its most extreme, it spawns the kind of anti-government forces that created a Timothy McVeigh or a Unibomber. At its most benign, It can be seen in the debates about school funding and control, zoning ordinances, environmental concerns, taxes.

Here in New Jersey, we see it in the questions about how much financial support the State should give to local school districts, or whether the State should take over schools, as it has done in Philadelphia and proposed to do in Camden. We see it in the animosities between those who support and those who oppose the Pine Lands Commission and special growth districts. We see it in the challenges to the Mount Laurel Decisions.

So many times, we feel helpless in the face of faceless bureaucracy – “You can’t fight City Hall.” But you can fight City Hall, or even, as we learned 30 years ago, the White House itself. Ultimately, our country is based on grassroots democracy and local control. But we abdicate that control when we don’t attend local meetings of school boards, zoning boards, planning committees, Township Councils.

I’m as guilty as anyone. I seldom attend those meetings, unless there is something that directly and specifically impacts on my life. Yet, everything decided at those meetings does impact on me, even if tangentially, whether it be zoning approval for a new shopping center two miles away, a cut back in school programs, or a new traffic light. By not attending meetings, I have opted out of helping the officials make those decisions. After all, it’s a lot easier – and more fun – to complain afterwards than to take the time to complain when my words might be heeded.

So, once again, I will attend tomorrow night’s meeting. And, once again, I will think, “Why don’t I come more often? These meetings are important.” I hope that this time I will listen to myself.

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