Staff column: Public meetings are not only for the few
It's not hard to imagine a land where the vast majority of citizens have no real input into their governments operations, whether those activities be local, regional or national. Countries like that exist all over the world.
Luckily, for citizens of the United States, one of the most important aspects of many major decisions, particularly at the local level, is the fact that open hearings are held for the public to have input into those choices. The right for citizens to have a say and to hear what is going on has been fought for and kept open by many people over the years, including those that have given their lives on battlefields around the world.
What some people in many countries would give to be able to meet with their fellow citizens; to be able to talk openly and freely about whether a tax increase was needed to improve a towns infrastructure or if their schools were being run properly. Yet Americans take these rights for granted; so much so that they forget they have a stake in how things are run and a responsibility to participate.
We have a lot of issues in our area that need attention, and when we are given the chance to voice our concern we should take it.. Who doesn't realize that Highways 6 and 10 are vital to our area; but unfortunately both are also dangerous and over crowded. And what about our water supply; the construction of a Gooseberry Dam by Sanpete County could dry up much of Scofield Reservoir. That large puddle in Pleasant Valley is where the water that supplies most of the county's population comes from. Public lands and their use is also another big issue in our area, along with drug abuse, Nine Mile Canyon, energy production, economic expansion and the list goes on and on.
Each year I attend a number of meetings about these and many other important subjects. Some of the issues affecting these very topics are discussed and acted upon in city council meetings, school board meetings, and county commission meetings. Certainly we elect our officials so they can make decisions on issues such as these, but just going to the voting booth and punching in who you want to see voting on these subjects is not enough. Officials really do want input into what to do and what the people want.
Local residents often complain that their officials voted differently in a meeting on an issue than they would have liked. When the complainers come to me, I ask them if they were at the public meeting in which they could have voiced their objection or support. Most say no.
But local, regular meetings are one thing; they come and go, and attending all of them can be at times mundane. What really gets to me is when citizens have the opportunity to have input into large scale governmental action, and almost no one shows up. There are 20,000 people that live in this county, and almost every year the Utah Department of Transportation holds some kind of open house or public hearing on highway projects proposed or slated for our area. Yet when I go to one of these open houses only a handful of people show up. It seems so many people around here scream about Highway 6, yet when they get their chance to really tell officials that will be making important decisions about it what they think, they don't take the opportunity. Sadly this same scenario happens with most of our major issues in the county in which people have chance to participate in the decision making. And I find it is basically the same 20 people who attend meetings and give input into everything ranging from Nine Mile Canyon road problems to whether PRWID should raise its water rates.
What this means is that the few are speaking for the many; and few voices, no matter how well informed, are never as powerful as the large numbers who could be there speaking for themselves.
Carbon county, like every county in the state, has its own set of problems to deal with. Our elected officials can only do so much to influence the federal and state governments actions in our area. Numbers are what count to those people; numbers of voters and citizens. Imagine a meeting on a Highway 6 project where 5,000 people showed up one night to give input to state officials. Or a meeting with federal officials on land use where 8,000 citizens overflowed the county events center where the meeting was being held. We as citizens have the power to change what is going on, but the ballot box is only a small part of that. And unfortunately we can't even get the majority of people to participate in elections most of the time.
Each week, either in the paper, on the front page or in the legals section we publish the schedules for upcoming meetings that affect your life. Once a month we produce a calendar that lists all the dates of meetings of local boards, councils and commissions.
The bare fact is that people need to get off their duffs, turn off silly television programs like American Idol or Dancing with the Stars that have nothing to do with anything important and attend public meetings, particularly those that affect major issues in our county.
No the commissioners don't sing pop songs, nor do state officials perform magic acts. And as for federal employees they don't dance around the room, although they may dance around some of the issues we bring up. But they do make decisions that affect each persons daily life in tremendous ways.
It's your life and your place of residence, Carbon County. It's up to you to affect the decisions about it.