I'll say it again, if we can't pay attention to the details and understand the fundamentals of government at the lowest levels, how can we ever hope to get a grasp on the national level and understand the real problems we're facing? Last week I talked a little about the responsibility to pay attention to the government and exercise your rights to know what's going on.
The easiest way to get involved in government is to go to the meetings. I know what most people think: How will you ever find time to squeeze a meeting in? I've got kids to feed, activities to participate in and I really need to take a rest during my busy schedule! Well, let me put it to you this way. It's literally a place to come and sit. You sit, you listen and you understand what the city or county faces on a day-to-day basis.
In Montana the state constitution guarantees the citizens right to attend meetings and inspect public records at all levels of government. That means that even if you miss that meeting, you can ask for the draft of minutes and take a gander at what was discussed. Sometimes those minutes can be sent via email, which means it's just a request and click away. Thanks to Article II, Section 8 and 9, the public has a right to know and a right to participate. That means that the citizens should have reasonable opportunity to participate in operations of agencies prior to the final decision.
While talking with the Valley County Commissioners in the past week about open meetings in local government, some good examples were brought up. Significant public interest can also be a factor in what you might find in the agenda. As Commissioner Bruce Peterson explained, perhaps a department has ordered $1,000 in paint and just want the confirmation of a go-ahead. I'll add here that the paint is already budgeted in the standard operations and maintenance in the department. Clearly this item might not be discussed in the open meetings. But, maybe a $50,000 project has come up last minute and needs to discussed, that would be on an agenda so interested parties could listen and participate in the decision of a expenditure in tax dollars.
What local citizens might not realize is that committees, commissions and board meetings are also open to the public. So if you've wanted to know what the Glasgow Recreation Board is up to or how the Valley County Fair Board is proceeding with plans, those meetings are open for attendance. Not only are these boards and committees open, but several boards are looking for people to sit in those positions. It might not be the easiest way to participate, but it is a great way to help out your local government bodies.
I know that a lot of this discussion might seem boring, and maybe to some it is a little dry. Unfortunately the day we stop caring, is the day we might as well forget those liberties. The attitude of someone else will take care of it ends up bringing a sense of entitlement. When you look at the budgets, you pay attention to the dollars spent, the projects tackled and the issues your local government is facing, it can give a better idea about the problems in the county or city. Maybe you will be the person to come up with a creative idea to solve a crisis? Maybe you have an area of expertise that can help come up with a simple solution for a complex problem?
My last argument for showing up at the meetings is that it shows your city council, your county commissioners and your board members that you support them. Too often those who complain are the only ones to make attendance. Imagine sitting in a chair in front of the public, imagine having to make the hard decisions, and imagine that everything you do brings criticism. Instead of offering harsh words, perhaps some critical criticism, and support for the work already being done can bring bigger positive changes.
Glasgow City Council meets 5:30 p.m. every first and third Monday each month. Valley County Commissioners meet every Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. Agendas are usually posted for the city at the Glasgow Civic Center, and posted for commission meetings in the Valley County Courthouse. I hope to see some of you there.