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Rare packed house for Newberg City Council reminds us of the importance of citizen participation in local government

Jan. 7 saw something rare at the Newberg City Council – a gallery full of people.

Granted, the abbreviated agenda only featured one item of public interest – the swearing in of two new council members, a new mayor and an existing council member. But, nonetheless, it was encouraging to see so many well-wishers, family members and others assemble in the Public Safety Building on a dreary January evening.

The gathering harkened back to the days, probably about two decades ago, when the council could regularly count on a full house for a regular meeting. In those times citizens paid attention to the issues before the council and not only attended the meetings, but were likely to speak their minds during public comment periods.

Alas, those days are in the past. On a regular basis, the council takes on important issues with nary a single soul in the audience. Motions are presented, ordinances are passed, codes are amended and, in general, decisions are made, all without the oversight of the public.

It's often only when the council makes a controversial decision, such as increasing water rates or system development charges, that the public decides to get involved.

However, it's rarely in person. Instead, they take to the Internet to lament the council's decision, vilify the councilors or flat out question the integrity of the process of governing, a process that is by its very design open to the public.

But that overview by the public requires that there be butts in the seats at council meetings, or at the very least contact between citizens and city administrators and council members to let their wishes be known.

What we have instead is the sound of crickets when the mayor calls for public comment at the council's twice-monthly meetings.

Posting a snarky comment on Facebook is not participatory government, no matter how much some would like it to be. It is, at its best, lazy, and at its worst a threat to democracy.

Commenting on the web is not the same as appearing before the council to speak to an issue, or motion, or proposed change in an ordinance. It's not the same as researching an agenda item, reading the council packet and informing yourself of the background of an issue.

Democracy takes work. Citizens must show up, give input, contribute to the process and, should the decision be different than what they would have wished, accept that the democratic process is like a heartfelt prayer – sometimes the answer is no.

And that speaks to a phenomenon we've witnessed repeatedly and we suspect is the reason that some people choose not to attend council or other subcommittee meetings: they ardently support an issue or action, but the committee votes a different way, a way that is counter to their wishes.

Their response? They, in effect, take their ball and go home, grousing all the way about how the council or committee's decision is a clear demonstration of how they don't truly represent the citizenry.

However, Newberg is a town of roughly 25,000 people. When one person approaches the council or planning commission with his or her views on an issue, and the body comes to a decision that is counter to that person's wishes, that doesn't mean the body is corrupt. Quite to the contrary, it means that the system is working properly, that democracy was utilized effectively and the majority won out.

Deal with it and move on. Only when citizens are actively involved in the discussions of government can they make informed arguments, suggest possible solutions and contribute to the democratic process in their town.

It's time to get to involved Newberg.


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