By Martin Engel
A central theme drove last fall's City Council elections in Menlo Park. That theme contributed to the dramatic turnover of the City Council.
We, the citizens of Menlo Park, demanded greater openness from our government. We voted for accountability and responsiveness to the needs and wishes of all the residents. (See Almanac editorial, Jan. 17.)
However, one of the themes not adequately promoted, or demanded from candidates in the campaign, was that of greater citizen participation and our assumption of greater responsibility for effective government. After all, in a democracy, whose government is it anyhow? And, we are ultimately responsible for making it work on our behalf. We elect representatives, and when those elected officials pursue agendas not to our liking, we don't do much more than complain and eventually vote them out.
But, there are other options for us. As President John F. Kennedy famously said, "Ask not what your country can do for you ... " You know the rest. That is to say, we all can and we must assume a greater participatory responsibility.
Indeed, the Derry referendum did bring large numbers of Menlo Park residents and business people actively into the political arena. As we all know, participatory democracy in government (like the historical New England town hall meetings) is often held up as a political ideal. One form of such active participation in Menlo Park is membership on one of the eight commissions that advise the City Council.
However, what we are advocating here goes well beyond these commissions to draw on greater citizen participation. We are proposing a number of standing permanent committees -- not ad hoc task forces -- that are duly structured but, unlike the commissions, quite independent of the council and administration.
Membership for each of these committees could be as many as a dozen or more. Each committee's rotating voluntary membership is to be drawn from various neighborhoods or precincts in Menlo Park, assuring broad representation. They would function as strategic "think tanks," to advise, investigate, perform research, advocate, and produce position papers. These groups would keep the council, administration and citizenry fully informed about the ongoing process of deliberation and reflect the broad interests of the city's residents.
The committees would be organized around major, permanent concerns and big issues, such as the budget, economic development and business, the general plan, government oversight and accountability, urban infrastructure and the El Camino Grand Boulevard committee, and possibly other broad topics that are a permanent part of the life of our city.
The central thrust of these committees would be to implement the advocacy statement: "Get involved! Participate! Give a damn!" Unlike the commissions, one purpose is to keep our council and administration honest and working on behalf of us, the voters.
Yes, I know, the devil is in the details. But that should not deter us from working on those details to make this happen. The recent election demonstrated just how many people are truly smart, thoughtful, caring members of our city community, and that they could and did play an active role in the process of government. This was also demonstrated by the recent ad hoc budget committee that labored mightily, even if to no avail.
Now things are different. An excellent "proof of concept" of this broad proposal might be to reconstitute that same budget task force into one of the first of these suggested permanent standing committees. A period of trial and error to shape that standing committee could serve as the template for the other committees.
If we wish government to hear us, we must speak in an organized, orderly, thoughtful, well reasoned way. The committee structure can give us that voice by raising it to the level of a chorus of Menlo Park citizens.
(Martin Engel lives on Stone Pine Lane in Menlo Park.)
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