Being a journalist puts one in a strange position. We attend a lot of meetings, but we are not part of them. We are merely observers, and this fly-on-the-wall existence gives us an unusual perspective.
Most of the meetings I attend have no direct impact on me, so it’s easy to observe the proceedings from a neutral position.
I don’t mean to suggest it is all peaches and cream. Meetings can be excruciating, both physically and mentally.
Three or four hours perched on a chair designed by someone who apparently never used a chair is no picnic, especially after an already long day.
Listening to circular conversations can be torture, especially when some of the participants are uninformed, disinterested, or inattentive.
The subject matter is not always the most stimulating, either.
I have heard enough audit presentations to last a lifetime. I’m pretty sure that I could recite the legally-required disclaimers that auditors must present every year, and I could do so without the aid of notes.
Despite these things, there are times when I see flashes of light during a meeting (not those caused by playing movies back in my head) and these bright spots are nearly enough to restore one’s faith in the system.
Local elected officials bring a variety of experience to the table. They are typically not experts in the subjects they are called upon to consider, but that is not necessarily a liability.
The good ones can do a fabulous job, regardless of their backgrounds.
One important distinction I have noticed is that they come to meetings prepared. Meeting packets are generally assembled days in advance. It is pretty easy to tell which elected officials have read the materials and which haven’t.
The good ones have reviewed the material and possibly made notes. They often do their own research to broaden their understanding. Many encourage input from their constituents through a variety of methods.
Another important characteristic of good elected officials is that they approach issues with an open mind, prepared to consider all angles before making a decision.
It can be very disheartening to see an elected official who has clearly made up his mind in advance, based on personal prejudice or his own agenda. No amount of education or information will convince these people to change their minds, and that’s a disservice to the people they represent.
Good representatives come to the table prepared, ask good questions, and make decisions based on what they believe is best for the entire community but only after having reviewed all the available information.
Even after all the hundreds of meetings I have attended, I still find it exciting to attend a meeting at which the participants demonstrate preparation, engage in a civil, reasonable, public discussion, and then take action.
I am often more interested in the process that public bodies use to reach a decision than I am in the decision itself. It seems to me that when the participants get the process right, they generally make better decisions. I don’t mean decisions with which I necessarily agree, but decisions that are made fairly and objectively in public.
There are cases in which it appears elected officials have had private discussions about an issue prior to a meeting. Not only can this be a violation of open meeting law, but it casts a dark shadow on the process, and throws transparency out the window.
There are many good reasons why the process has been set up so that discussions and decisions take place in public.
When elected officials get this right, it gives one faith in the system. It can make a person even a cynical journalist proud to live in a country where honesty and transparency matter.
Meetings often make me tired. When they are done right, however, they can give me energy, and perhaps even hope.
Being an elected official can be a thankless job. Those who take the time and trouble to do the job right, and who consistently remember the oath they took and who they represent deserve our respect and gratitude.
Those may seem lofty ideals, especially when some of the subjects these officials must discuss include such mundane topics as blight, stray dogs, or sewer issues.
We should remember, however, that it is easy to be a bad representative. It is much more difficult to be a good one.
We are fortunate that some of our elected officials sincerely care about the communities they serve.
Despite their flaws, I’d rather rely on local elected officials who are accountable to their constituents than on a government run by some evil little dictator or extremist regime.
Our system may not be perfect, but when it is executed properly, it sure is beautiful.