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Good government requires active input from citizens

By Jonathan P. LaBonté, Mayor of Auburn

Jonathan P. LaBonté, Mayor of Auburn

Many of you may remember the cartoon “School House Rock” and the song “How a Bill Becomes a Law.” Without commentary on the dysfunction of Washington and whether that is still the process today, the topic of public idea to implementation is worth revisiting.

As the song goes, some local residents had an idea and they brought it to their elected representative. Their representative turned that idea into a bill, which was sent to a committee to be reviewed, researched, debated and voted up or down back to the full elected body, in that case, Congress.

For the public, there’s a clear link between how an idea gets shared and ultimately gets to a yes or no from all of the elected officials. An idea becomes a bill. A bill goes to a committee made up of a small number of elected officials. The committee votes it back to the full body. And all the while the process is clear and the public knows how to provide its input to their officials.

In my four years so far as mayor, one of the most concerning aspects of trying to work with an elected city council of seven is that there is no process for an elected official, or a citizen, to propose an idea and have it worked through a defined process.

At present, Auburn’s City Council does not have council committees to vet ideas and make recommendations. Most items in front of the council originate from department heads, who simply ask the city manager to be placed on the agenda to ask the council to allocate funding or change a policy, or follow the tried and tested method of the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

What this system leaves us with is an inefficient use of time. When each idea or recommendation is brought before the full city council to be discussed during a workshop without advance vetting by councilors, we find requests for information and additional research that could have been addressed in a separate meeting eating up valuable time of the full council to debate the issue, rather than asking for more research to be done.

This boils over into the frustration many residents feel when they come forward with questions or issues they wish to see addressed, and the only mechanism to interact with councilors is at an open session of a city council meeting. The input and questions from the public are important, but how does that input turn into research and potential change in how the city does something? The answer right now is that it only can by being a squeaky wheel.

When Auburn residents went to the polls in November to elected city councilors, they were voting for people that they believed would best represent their interests and help to grow our city and improve life for citizens. Those same residents deserve a system of governance that ensures that their elected representatives hear their ideas in a way that they can research and act on them.

The current model of reactionary governance has likely led to a lot of our challenges today. We trail most of our competitor cities in economic growth, in household incomes, in rates of educational attainment and we lead in categories like property tax rates, children growing up in poverty and families on food stamps.

I am very confident that the seven sitting city councilors are equipped with the passion and intelligence to set a direction for Auburn, built on the input of citizens and the research and analysis of staff.

Over the coming months, I hope all of you will engage with us and support the move to bring the policy making and direction setting in our form of government back to where it belongs, the citizens and their elected representatives.

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