In the 11 years I worked for a member of Congress a majority of my tasks was to assist constituents with problems related to public agencies – city, county, state, federal and special districts. I traveled the district meeting with folks and listening to their problems with these agencies and we tried to forge some type of resolution. Mostly, it was educating folks on what agencies did, how they worked and what could they expect from them. Since we don’t teach civics anymore most people have no idea how it works and the rest would just as soon not know.
But sticking your head in the sand doesn’t make a problem go away nor does it educate the populace on how things are done in one or another community (and yes, they are all different). Take where I live today, Escalante, Utah. About 65% of the city is LDS and descendants of the pioneer families that first moved here in the 1880’s. They have a sense of pride in their town that dates back to those humble beginnings and highly resent new move-ins trying to change things.
On the other side of that debate are the newer move-ins that don’t have a sense of ownership (other than their land deed) and have very different life experiences and attitudes. Neither of these two groups are right or wrong, but they do have different outlooks and expectations. What’s missing, usually, are two things that need development in every small town on an ongoing basis.
First, is Respect for those that are heritage families and respect for those moving here to be part of that heritage over time. The town has a fabulous heritage and the preservation of that in the view of historic buildings is one of the reasons Escalante was just named a National Historic District. A high percentage of the homes have been preserved in their original state or only minor modifications have been made. Truly, brick and mortar are one of its many attributes and is one of the aspects of the towns new move-ins adore. All you have to do is look at the two most recent business move-ins to see the adoration for brick in their buildings.
Second, a little over half the town are active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints (LDS) and are busy with their families, church and various callings. They communicate with each other on all issues on a regular basis and if there’s a water crisis they know about it. If they have a project they want they’ve talked about it and come up with what they want to do. Unfortunately, the rest of us are not there and not in on those conversations. Thus we hear about it at City Council meetings, Planning and zoning meetings, or from the newspaper if it’s included in the local column. And now you see postings from folks on Facebook about these issues. The bottom line is the lack of communication only increases the frustration between groups and makes for hard feelings.
How to fix this? One town uses their local newspaper to get answers through an anonymous “I Want To Know?” column. They answer one question a week and provide “just the facts” so that folks can form their own opinions. Another town has a Mayor that holds “office hours” once a week where citizens can walk in and chat about issues – limit 15 minutes per constituent (strictly enforced). Another town has formed a citizens advisory committee and constituents are encouraged to meet with them monthly to bring forward their issues. Education is a key component of every approach and has to be done on an ongoing basis as every town tends to get new folks about every two years. So you repeat yourself constantly – but it keeps things from escalating to name calling and hurt feelings.
And the key – heritage families stop taking offense at every question from newer move-ins and new move-ins ask better questions. It’s a partnership that grows cities, friends, and families.