Nothing packs them in at a city council meeting like a healthy dose of discontent. Whether it's a possible tax hike or a street and sewer project, people turn out when they don't like what's going on or what might happen in the near future.
In a sense, we vote with our silence much more frequently than we vote at the polls. When there's no controversy elected officials go along their merry way, blithely assuming they're doing the will of the people.
While discontent can be troubling it does get people involved and engaged in public discourse.
Two issues which prompted strong feelings in the Brainerd area come to mind to illustrate this point -- the war with Iraq and the possibility of a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Baxter.
The war prompted both supporters and critics of the war to demonstrate and express their views publicly. Many people were inspired to contribute to efforts to support U.S. troops and humanitarian recovery efforts. Central Lakes College and the Rosenmeier Center for State and Local Government sponsored a well attended public forum on the war. People spoke their minds. They disagreed on U.S. foreign policy but they did so civilly. It was a textbook example of an engaged electorate debating an important issue.
The Wal-Mart issue also inspired many people who formerly had let civic affairs take a back seat in their lives to study the land use policies of our area leaders. Whether this part of central Minnesota eventually becomes home to a supercenter or not, many citizens are more knowledgeable about government and land use than they were before the controversy started.
Many area residents have expressed chagrin at the rapid, sprawling development along the Highway 371 corridor and have wondered how it happened. It happened because many of us weren't paying attention.
The lesson to be learned is that it's time to pay attention. Get involved. Ask questions of elected leaders. Without an informed and involved public politicians will often take the path of least resistance in public policy.
If we snooze, we'll all lose.
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