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System 'allows us to have our say'

This year Lake Oswego City Council is planning to review the various advisory committees that report to the council and it’s been suggested by city staff that there is perhaps too much citizen input into the governance of Lake Oswego. Some say that to streamline city government, simplify procedures and shorten the decision-making timeline, trimming the number of citizen committees and public testimony may be necessary.

Necessity is, of course, the excuse for every restriction of freedom. (William Pitt said in 1783, “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of Tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”)

Any suggestion that the men and women who represent us on the city council do not need to hear the voices of the citizens deserves to be shouted down.

Representative government is essential; and at the same time, it is unwise, unnecessary and dangerous to walk away after an election and allow elected representatives to govern in the absence of our views, opinions and oversight. We elect them to make decisions for us, but in electing council members to represent us we are not surrendering our rights. Casting a ballot does not cancel one’s right to be heard. And a wise council wants to listen.

There is also a larger principle involved in this issue of public access to the council, either directly or through citizen committees. The principle is this: Our city government is as close as we’ll ever get to experiencing direct democracy.

Included under the microscope in the council’s planned review of advisory groups is the budget committee, which is mandated by the state of Oregon. Advisory committee members are appointed by the council from volunteers selected for their specialized knowledge in a field, such as parks or libraries or budgeting. Their task is to advise the council and make recommendations. They bring new facts, personal expertise and a fresh point of view. Commingling our community knowledge through these various committees and boards and through public testimony can only improve the quality of decisions made by council.

Defending our access to our city government — via public testimony, citizen advisory committees, city boards and commissions and neighborhood associations — is vital to good local government. Representative democracy, as we experience it at the state and federal level, is a pale reflection of true democracy. With local government in a small city we’re much closer to touching that ideal. It is here, in city government, that the last vestige of direct democracy survives. We can see it, hear it and feel it in our city council chambers in ways not replicated elsewhere.

In Salem and in Washington a multitude of voices and mounds of money influence state and federal laws and regulations. But in our city council chambers we need only sign a slip of paper and we’re allowed to speak directly, not only to the council but also to anyone who attends a meeting, pays a cable bill or who can borrow a computer.

We want our say. We deserve our say. Our system of city government allows us to have our say. For now. To preserve this freedom we must resist any suggestion we don’t have the right. We should treasure this remnant of direct democracy precisely because it exists nowhere else.

Darrel Condra is a resident of Lake Oswego.



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