By Dr. John Crumpton
Since the name of this publication is The Rant, I’ve decided this month to rant about one of my favorite topics — citizen engagement. Specifically, the lack of it in local government.
Politics is all about information. A wise county commissioner once told me, “obtaining information is how people learn. The more you learn the more power you have. Politics is all about power. When you give people more information it influences politics and gives people a perceived power over you.”
This is why I was always careful with information in my 25 years in local government.
As county manager, I had a person in charge of communications. This person monitored the traffic on various platforms and sent messages about county services, special events and meetings. Along with our website, this was how we tried to engage the community and tell our story. I’ve always wondered if this was a good and effective way to engage with our citizens.
In addition to my duties with Lee County, for the last seven years I’ve taught online classes in the master’s in public administration program at UNC Chapel Hill. My class is titled “Introduction to City and County Government.” We spend one week on citizen engagement, and it is the most difficult class to teach.
Why is it difficult? Because getting citizens engaged in their government and communities is not easy and telling students how to do it isn’t an exact science. Before cable TV, cell phones, computers and video games, citizens had to engage with one another for entertainment. Today’s technology should make engagement easier, but it does not. Instead, people look at their phones and think they’re engaged.
There is no sure-fire way to get people to step up and actively engage in constructive input. For example, I presented an annual budget to the board of commissioners for 16 consecutive years. Each presentation came with a required public hearing. I can count on one hand the number of people who attended a public hearing on the budget and made comments. The average citizen is not engaged.
Another example of citizen disengagement is the recent property tax revaluation. Last month, I wrote about growth and the fact that citizens weren’t aware that their local governments were trying to grow. Well, our efforts were successful. New developers from outside of Lee County are now driving up the price of local real estate.
In last year’s budget process, the tax administrator told the commissioners the average increase in property values was over 30 percent. That was over a year ago when we began talking about the fiscal year 2023 revaluation. Obviously, a lot of people were not listening or paying attention.
Being involved in the community and being engaged means being seen and understanding why your government exists in the first place. Each semester for my class, the students in my class fill out a citizen engagement profile. They typically ask questions like, “Do you know your neighbors?” and “Do you go to church?” or “Are you a member of a civic organization?” I am no longer surprised to find people who have never been to a civic club or can’t name their senators or representatives.
Thankfully most can name their president, but many couldn’t even tell me who their governor or mayor is. Information about government is easy to find, but still there persists a lack of knowledge, engagement and interest.
Studies have shown some of the reasons for citizen disengagement are feelings of distrust toward government (I’ll tackle that next month) and that when they are engaged their concerns aren’t taken seriously. In defense of elected officials, they can’t survey 65,000 people to see which way the wind blows. Our government doesn’t work this way. It’s a democracy and most of the time the majority rules, so you have to participate to have influence. Not getting your way, which happens a lot in our society, can be a tough pill to swallow.
Engagement isn’t when you call the tax office or elected official to complain about paying taxes. It is every American’s right to complain about taxes, and we all do. But engagement is understanding why you pay taxes and how that money is spent. It’s getting involved in understanding how communities grow and prosper. It’s serving on boards and committees – you don’t have to be elected to have input into what is being decided. Joining local organizations is another way to help make a difference. That is engagement. However, just like getting an education, you have to want to do it because no one can make you. Is everyone too busy to get engaged in their community?
There will be people who read this and leave comments. I’ll read them, but again, I can tell you they won’t change my opinion. People who rant anonymously are typically unhappy with their own lives and want to make everyone else miserable. The people who like to write about how bad things are on social media should ask themselves what they’re doing to create change. Anonymous comments may be entertaining or funny, but they aren’t creating change. If you want to change things in our community, getting involved in person and bringing a positive attitude will benefit everyone.
There are plenty of citizens who communicated with me the old fashioned way. They called me on the phone or came by and talked in person. Some of those conversations went well and some did not. But I always tried to be honest and commit to doing only those things I had the authority to do. I want to thank those people for being engaged and interested enough to try and create positive change. They helped me in a lot of ways over the last 16 years — even if things didn’t go their way.
Dr. John Crumpton retired as Lee County Manager after 16 years on February 28.