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.
I strenuously object to you asking students whether they “go to church” and then tut tutting over them when they say no, calling them bad citizens. Their religion is none of your business and ATHEISTS ARE CITIZENS TOO.
That said, it seems like you are forgetting that most people, when they understand what’s going on and are generally ok with it — like they understand development and are fine with their property assessments rising over time — don’t go out of their way to say so. Satisfied people are quiet people. So what you hear at public hearings are the confused and angry dissatisfied people. They are not a representative sample of the population.
If you want to know what a more representative sample of the population knows or feels about an issue, you are going to have to go to where they are and ask them. They will not go out of their way to come to you, as you have seen.
What do you expect out of someone who writes, “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”? That describes many religious people’s worldview: I believe what I believe, and no fact will change my belief.
I think Dr. Crumpton was a good county manager. He saw the county through some terrible times, and had the courage to say things (writing mostly through public documents, like budget proposals) that the BOC majority didn’t want to hear.
I just wish he’d put a little more thought into some of these remarks. I know the names of all my elected representatives, and those of many appointed board members, but I don’t belong to a civic organization, and I do not attend church. And, I’m not special – I can think of a dozen others who meet that criteria.
Jay you are not “normal” when it comes to being informed about local government. You are in the top 1-2% of the informed.
In fact, I suspect very few commenting on this site would place as within the normal distribution.
Normal distribution is the 68% of the middle.
This is the core of what I think Crumpton is trying to say – that the average person is so far removed for the mechanics and workings of local government that they have almost no comprehension of why it even exists, why it is important, and why certain decisions get made.
I tend to agree with Spaugh on this one. Most of the people who comment here are probably not the people he is referring to. We seem to be pretty engaged with local government. Our views range from Far left to Fascist right, but I do believe that we all think we are correct. I think “The Rant” could confirm that on average, the higher commented on articles are based in politics. I’m grateful for this forum that allows us to share our views, and sometimes just “Rant” to vent our frustrations.
What a great article. It was so good I had to read it twice. I think I’ll keep this issue of the Rant and go back and read it every once and a while just to remind me of my parents and the way I was raised.
John speaks of citizen disengagement in local politics. This happens because city leadership does not stand strong on principles. Sanford is no different than other cities. They sacrifice quality of life in chasing a buck.
Growth is important, in fact he probably teaches at UNC that city governments want to build the tax base. Unfortunately, this leads to gentrification(poor being pushed out) and some elderly being taxed out of their homes and family farms being sold to developers because they cannot afford the new taxes.
The city could stand strong and force developers to create more green spaces, but they don’t because the developers threaten higher home prices. The developers leave but the citizens have to cope with their mess.
The city could stand strong and force developers to create larger home sites(respect existing neighborhoods), but they don’t, they yield to the developers. Now there is flooding that did not exist before.
Complacency sits in because Sanfordians feel like their leaders only listen to outsiders. Why are the locals being ignored?
“V” then proves Dr. Crumptons’ point, anonymously rants under the title of “V” and clearly shows that reading and comprehension is difficult for some people. Dr. Crumpton never asked anyone their religion. Additionally he didn’t TuT TuT them or call them bad citizens. Going to church is one of many examples of being involved in the community. Some people are always looking for some sliver of injustice to latch on to and completely detract from the discussion while acting like they are soooo offended. OH NO!!!! Somebody said church!!!! He was just giving examples of things that are considered civic engagement and asked the students if they participated in any of these. So Lighten up Francis. Not a major issue. Or are you trying to argue that Atheists are or should be added to the long list of marginalized victims in the country. If that is the case, get in line, Atheists are quite possibly the least important of the demographics of our society that has been maligned in some way.
Dr. Crumpton I would like to make one observation. I wish people would stop saying that our form of government is a democracy. We are not a democracy, our form of government is a constitutional republic. There is a difference. You know this. Democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine. A republic recognizes the rights of the minority and is prohibited from taking those rights. “ The smallest minority on earth is the individual” Ayn Rand.
Now who is failing in reading comprehension? He asks his UNC students if they go to church as part of his questionnaire on civic engagement. It’s right there in his essay, toward the top. Look again.
Challenge accepted: You stated that he asked them their religion. And at no time did he ever ask them their religion. Asking if they attend Church, is not asking them their religion. SO again, you are lacking in reading comprehension. Go back and try again.
I didn’t state that. Try again. And then re-think attacking other people’s reading comprehension.
Every one of your assertions is just wrong. Flat out wrong. Factually wrong. And then you throw in Ayn Rand at the end just for kicks. You’re like a parody of an internet troll. What’s wrong with you?
Dale, in context, he is equation church attendance with community involvement or awareness. That seems to be what V is responding to.
And, really, who cares if he’s talking about Catholics, Mormons, or neo-Pagans? Implying that we need to be religious (in any way) in order to be either informed or active might be insulting to informed, active atheists or agnostics.
I didn’t take that as his implication. Being informed is a two way street so it requires one to go out amongst others to find out what they think and know. If there is grape juice, wine, hard liquor, or nothing in your little glass or cup, it is the gathering of people that is important and any good city or county manager will tell you that you find people who gather at Churches, After school Elementary school sites, and Civic or Fraternal Clubs.
One athiest at a time at the local coffeshop is hard work so people in Crumpton’s profession seek out crowds.
People like myself sometimes feel we aren’t worthy enough to be heard. Sometimes we feel we are wasting our time and breathe and that engaging in an effort to make a change falls on deaf ears. I read in the Rant informing the public of a closed door meeting where a $500,000 grant was awarded to a local organization for a shelter and care for the homeless in Lee County. The 501(c) had not been granted nor did they wait on approval from the IRS for their 501(c) nonprofit status to be awarded. Yet it was going to be granted until other members and people in power stepped up to say “wait a minute “ this is not how we do business in Lee County! You mentioned that people who are not engaged should step up and start engaging with their representatives but then decision makers go ahead and make decisions that are flawed! We the public are allowed five minutes to speak and or discuss the issues that we might have during the public meeting sessions. It sounds like a lot of time and when we are speaking it seems like forever however five minutes is not nearly enough. Thank you for the great advice on getting back to engaging and discussing the issues face to face. Another great way to engage our community leaders is voting! Make written notes to help remember what leaders vote for and against to mull over prior to Election Day. Especially when we are given the chance to vote on projects that concern our life living in Lee County.
Was this *editorial* intended for your Masters in Public Admin students (really?) who can’t name their governor, or for the residents of Sanford/Lee Co??? Please don’t pretend that ordinary people have any input into land development decisions. Sure- we can make some noise and maybe get a few seconds of media attention if we’re loud enough. But it doesn’t matter. Decisions have long been made when The Ordinary Citizens are finally cordially invited to a “Public Hearing” on whatever latest bullshit we’ve all been sold out for. We can waste a lot of time and energy and passion so we can say *we tried* by *participating*, and sometimes we do it anyway. We have concerns that run a lot deeper than a damn dollar; and we have consciences and other annoying human qualities. But you know much better than I (or, at least, you knew much SOONER than I) that a public hearing is just that. It’s just a gesture— NC law defines it as that— a time for the Random Nobodys to pretend they’ve ‘been heard’. Those That Matter suffer through it, rolling their eyes, then get right back to business. (Incidentally, I learned this years ago from a UNC SOG article…) Anyway, The Ordinary Citizens here have been very consistent in their survey responses over the years about what they valued in the place they’d chosen to make their home; and what their concerns were in the face of impending/inevitable change/development. And our local government has been equally consistent in telling all of us to go get… Sucks that the LUPs have been just as useless as our input. They’re just words and pretty pictures. Just rewrite them. Duh.
You ask for citizen involvement. I’ve lived in this county 16 years, about half of the time I’ve served some community benefiting function (I hope they benefited). But there are so many layers that staying current on several of them is overwhelming. I live in a POA community with a master POA “above that”, then in a county, state and country. Each of those layers has many organizations that could affect me. No matter that I read diligently on line and through newspapers and magazines, events happen too fast and in such volume that I’ll never catch up. Announcements aren’t always published in the media I read and if they are they are worded in such obscurity and fine print that it would take more time than I have to try and keep up. Take an annexation or zoning issue. An announcement is published but with no accompanying map. So I’m left with puzzling how it affects me. Yes I could go to the planning commission and I have. But there are so many that eventually you lose interest. My point is most people ignore most civic things because they probably don’t affect them and because of a perception that the decision is already determined. How many of us actually know one of the officials making decisions? How often do those people reach out and explain their decision process? I see so few getting a local or state oriented paper (thanks Rant). And my how expensive they have become.
Excellent article and I am one who is not engaged . It’s not that I don’t want to participate, I do . And I want my voice to count . I don’t know exactly how to become more involved . My time and energy are limited . But I’ll see what I can do to participate more . Thank you for your service to our community .
It is hard to communicate with a government official when the first thing they say when they return a phone call on a property tax matter is “I don’t want to hear it”, before you can even get a sentence out of your mouth.
You need to name the government official. throw them under the bus. no government representative should EVER talk to a tax payer that way.
Just like the Lee County tax department. You file a grievance on the stupid property tax increase. Then they send you a notice in the mail that you have to appear before a committee. You need values of houses around you, etc, etc. No wonder people don’t get involved, or care to do anything for the Lee County government. The tax department makes it extremely tough to challenge your tax rate. The tax department doesn’t care about how they work with you. In fact they prefer not to hear you at all. That’s why I say the heck with getting involved. It ain’t worth my time.
He wrote the article.
Hi- Why do you say outside developers driving up the cost of local real estate is a success? Can local mom and pop stores afford the cost of rent? There are so many large empty buildings downtown. Thank you.
More people = more business for the local stores = more profit to pay the rent with. Growth here is good, this place was dead not too long ago. It’s just now showing some signs of life.
Nothing like tax bill complaints. There is nothing the manager can do about tax bill complaints because the State of NC does not place the legal responsibility for assessment with him https://www.ncleg.gov/EnactedLegislation/Statutes/PDF/ByArticle/Chapter_105/Article_16.pdf
Folks never want to hear that. No one in city or county management wants to be appointed as the tax assessor/collector because it’s a pain in the ass and highly regulated by the State of NC and sometimes the statutes are nearly inexplicable to normal folks.
There are people in local government that are difficult if not nigh impossible to control because their power flows directly from the State of NC, not the locality. Building Inspectors, Health Inspectors, Medical Officials, etc., etc., are almost impossible for the City or County Manager to control. Tax assessing is like this.
I really appreciate your guest column. Last month you explained to us how the rapid growth that is going to over tax our schools and public services is really good for us. This month it’s how shouting into the wind is going to make a difference. I can hardly wait for next month’s “We should trust the government” column. No thanks!
This is golden coming from the most crooked person who manipulates commissioners and sells Lee County out for his own good. Why do we give these types of people a platform!