Thursday, January 05, 2006

Act Locally: Promote Accountability in Government

Thanks to Ron Suarez, I was alerted to a local gathering of some of the Democracy for America folks.  We met at Frenchies in Depot Town.  Now, in case you're wondering why someone would or should attend something like this, I'll explain...

Karen Sidney gave a talk about the Ann Arbor city budget.  The amazing thing about her talk was how casually she mentioned some rather alarming things about the budgetary process in City Hall, with balance sheet discrepancies amounting to millions of dollars.  I had no idea it was so bad, and I have no idea how she managed to be so calm in her presentation of the information.  Anyway, it may be that the only way to get this kind of information is to go to these kinds of events.  (At least until more people get more active about putting the information online.)  It is something that directly affects all local residents, and everyone in Ann Arbor ought to know about it.

After Ms Sidney gave her presentation, we had some small group activities to brainstorm for the planned Candidate Forum.  This is something that is being arranged to take place on February 1 at the Pittsfield Town Hall.  We hope to get several candidates for state elections to come and talk about their positions on various issues, and answer a few questions.  We also hope to get a bunch of voters to attend.

The challenge for the planners of events, such as the Candidate Forum, is how to get people to attend.  It is a big challenge, because you have to get people's attention, and show them why it is worth missing an episode of The Simpsons, or whatever, in order to get to know the people who will be making their laws and managing their money.

Personally, I think one of the reasons that people should go out to meet their politicians, is to promote accountability.  Why is that?

One of the themes that emerged from Ms. Sidney's talk about the Ann Arbor budget, is that there are systems problems in City Hall that impair accountability.  One the the lines of questions that people proposed, to ask of potential candidates for office, had to do with accountability.  Everyone thinks that political establishments need to be organized in a way that promotes accountability.  That is true, of course.  But the task of improving accountability in public offices cannot be solved merely by changing an organizational chart, or writing rules and regulations; there is a psychological aspect to it as well.  

How are we going to promote accountability in government, if barely half the population bothers to vote, and hardly anyone comes out to see the candidates?  Politicians are not going to be accountable if no one bothers to go to a meeting, look them in the eye, and ask them tough questions.  That is what we need.  All the laws and procedures are not going to do any good, unless the candidates have the emotional experience of facing their constituents, actually seeing their faces, seeing their concern.  It is the personal involvement of people acting locally that will make our politicians feel like there is someone out there, to whom they are accountable.