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On public trust and being involved

Right Here Right Now

Posted: July 28, 2008 1:53 a.m.
Updated: September 28, 2008 5:02 a.m.
A rash of unethical and inappropriate behavior by our elected leaders that has been reported in the national press over the past few years has contributed to an erosion of confidence by the American public in the institution of government.

And now, that skepticism seems to be encroaching upon our own special community, as evidenced by the July 13 editorial here in The Signal, titled “Council: Integrity or cronyism?”

The piece pointed out that some City Council members’ recent appointments to the Planning Commission and the Parks, Recreation, and Community Services Commission could be interpreted to be based on personal favoritism, a sentiment that has also been expressed in private by others in the community.

One dilemma presented by favoritism is that, under various other names, some people do not see it as a problem. Connections, networking, acquaintances — almost everyone has drawn on these sources to hunt for jobs in the private sector.

But in the context of government, the issue raised by The Signal is a fair one.

Public officials should be aware that choosing friends and family for high-level positions can give the appearance of unfairness, which makes the public lose faith in the integrity of the governmental decision-making processes.

A public servant must always put the common good ahead of any personal, financial or political benefit that he or she might receive from his or her actions or decisions.

Poor decision-making at the local level is particularly egregious because local government most directly affects people’s day-to-day lives.

From the time people get up in the morning and turn on the water, flush the toilet, walk down the sidewalk, drive on the streets or take public transit, send their kids to school, visit parks, recreation centers, and libraries, record their deeds and marriages, open their businesses or build their homes, they are dealing with processes and procedures put in place by local government.

Given the extensive effect of local government on peoples’ lives, it is important for citizens to have the utmost confidence in our local leaders.

To be fair, The Signal editorial did not claim any malfeasance on the part of our elected officials. It only raised concerns based on a lack of confidence induced by ill-advised decisions or insensitive actions.

The piece also served as a wake-up call to the community with an appropriate suggestion for a remedy in its conclusion: “It’s the voting public’s right and responsibility to make sure we have trustworthy elected officials leading the most local, and thus most precious, level of government. That trust is not a given; it must be earned.”

Those closing comments carried an important, but oft ignored, precept of our democracy, which is that we citizens share with governments the responsibility to uphold just and fair practices within our community.

It is important for everyone to appreciate that the ultimate guarantor of justice within the community is the vigilance of its citizens. We must all realize that elections to public bodies are not acts of governing, but acts of gaining representation in government.

A healthy political system is one in which those elected are held accountable by the people they represent. Individuals should be elected to office on the premise that they will do the best work on behalf of the people to the exclusion of the elected official’s most tempting personal interests. If officials violate that trust, they should not be “rehired.”

Forging better government will require overcoming apathy among the electorate. Many voters do not get involved in politics until election time; then it becomes a practice of convenience for most to vote for individuals on the basis of incumbency, party affiliation, or ballot position alone without giving notice to the substantive issues involved.

Think how much better we would be served if we all heeded The Signal’s call and lived up to our responsibility to make certain we are putting into elected office only individuals whose trustworthiness is above reproach!

The way to do that responsibly is to stay engaged between elections. Governance is a process. Employ all the means at your disposal to use the process to your advantage.

Stay in touch with your elected officials through personal contact, advocacy groups, town hall meetings, City Council hearings and the like.

Work through your non-profit organizations, foundations, professional groups, unions, churches, discussion groups, clubs, community associations and other groups to voice opinions on key issues.

Read independent press accounts and others’ views to test your own theories about where we should be heading.

Finally, keep track of your elected officials’ votes on the measures you deem important, and vote your conscience at election time to put into office those who put your interests — not theirs — first.

If we all do these things, we will restore public faith in our leaders and have better government where it counts most — right here, right now!

Bill Kennedy lives in Valencia and is a principal in Wingspan Business Consulting. He serves the community as a planning commissioner and member of the Valley Industrial Association, Chamber of Commerce and Habitat for Humanity boards. His column reflects his own views, not necessarily those of these organizations or those of The Signal.


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