Citizenship is not a spectator sport.
Our American form of democracy allows citizens to elect the people whose job is to represent the public interest at local, state and national levels of government. The popular witticism that “People get the government they deserve” is based on the involvement of both voters and non-voters in determining our representatives.
After those representatives are elected, citizens are given the opportunity to monitor the performance of their government by exercising their right to attend meetings and inspect documents, a right that is spelled out in public access laws. The Open Meetings Act in Illinois even gives citizens the legal right to speak at government meetings.
And beyond that, state laws allow citizens – it’s different from state to state – to petition, a process that can write laws and remove elected officials. Those citizens also might enjoy the right to vote on certain tax increases, especially at the local level.
So there is plenty of heavy lifting involved in citizenship, if we’re to do it right.
The citizens of Lee County – and especially Dixon – have recently been getting lots of exercise in democracy.
The past two elections have given voters the opportunity to raise the local sales tax to provide more funds for schools. Both initiatives failed by wide margins.
As city of Dixon leaders ponder a legislative change in its form of government, citizens have learned that they may petition for a referendum in which they would vote whether the city switches to a city manager form – an idea that voters rejected in the 1990s. But given developments over the past 15 months, voters might want another chance to repeal their century-old commission style of city administration – even if the commission itself might oppose a change.
Talk this week among city park board members included mention of a referendum to raise taxes so that Memorial Pool could be reopened and maintained. An advisory referendum to gauge public interest in such a solution won only 41 percent support in 2007. But a recent grass-roots effort to resume operations at Memorial Pool has received cooperation from the park board, indicating, perhaps, a strong interest in reviving the project.
Although democracy does not require your participation, it works better when citizens embrace the duties, rights and privileges of their role in governing.
Dixon’s citizens will have another opportunity on Monday night to hear – and be heard – about reorganizing city government. The task force appointed by Mayor Jim Burke to study the issue will meet at 6:30 p.m. in City Hall to report on its work so far and to answer questions from citizens about the options for change.
As the city council moves toward hiring an administrator, and the task force begins to wrap up its examination of those options for change, citizens should be encouraged that progress is being made to professionalize the administration of city government.
We urge citizens to give their democratic rights and privileges a little workout Monday by attending that meeting.
The task force wants your involvement, and your local government needs it. See you there.