West Windsor is a long way from Washington, D.C., but it seems to me the trials of this suburban community, where some people are vigorously debating the size and appropriate role of government, might be instructive for the nation as a whole. If the citizens of West Windsor, with a population 25,000 or so, can’t connect with the municipal officials who are also their next-door neighbors, how can we expect the country as a whole to function?
While it’s easy (and sometimes tempting) to dismiss the unhappy West Windsor residents as chronic complainers who will never be happy, that may not be the most productive response. Some of them, to their credit, are asking themselves what they can do to effect positive change, rather than endlessly complain.
One West Windsor online discussion group, http://groups.google.com/group/WWCommunityDiscussion, recently tackled the subject head-on. One participant, Jerry Foster, who is also president of the West Windsor Bicycle and Pedestrian Alliance, offered some advice for reducing the mistrust and acrimony between citizens and their elected officials.
Among his suggestions for residents: “Do your homework — look at an issue from both the cost and benefit side. Use respectful language — a good test to see if you understand an issue is if you can frame the arguments in terms that your opponents will agree with. Offer realistic, constructive alternatives — outside the box is OK, but way outside the box is simply destructive.”
Foster asked public officials to help constructive debate by educating “the public on the process — so much mistrust is based on simple misunderstanding; and acknowledging communication from the public and providing an estimated time in which a considered response will be forthcoming. Delivering the considered response in the estimated timeframe will build trust even more effectively.”
Good stuff. And it spurred me to offer some additional suggestions for winning friends and influencing people in the hyper-kinetic politics of blogs and web postings.
First off give your government a chance to make a mistake now and then. In West Windsor the hot button du jour is the opening of the new Arts Council center — created at taxpayer expense! Critics have attacked their town government for expenditures as large as $800,000 (that’s the money spent on capital improvements at the old firehouse that will house the center) and as little as $30,000 (that’s the money that a private developer donates each year to the Arts Council). For comparison’s sake, the $30,000 represents less than one-tenth of one percent of the municipality’s $37 million annual budget.
I’m glad the critics aren’t looking as critically at my operation. I would guess that in any given year we at U.S. 1 squander 5 percent on bad business decisions — ventures that we plunged into that turned out to be dead ends; poor utilization of staff; bad equipment decisions; you name it.
And that’s just the business. At home it’s a similar story. I suspect I am not alone.
The fact is that perfection is never possible, but striving for it always comes at a high price. Township and school officials, operating under a microscope in open meetings, can’t possibly be as efficient as their counterparts in the private sector.
Another tip for the harsh critics of our public officials: Remember that the “can-do” spirit that enables you and your neighbors to work together to solve over-the-fence, backyard problems does not always work in an institutional setting. It’s no accident that we have established municipal governments and school boards to take the place of informal town hall meetings and home schooling. We have complicated problems, often made more complicated by the need to coordinate the solution with neighboring municipalities.
The “can-do” fix, where one man or a small group offers to take the problem into their own hands, may solve the problem once. But it does not provide an ongoing, long-term sustainable remedy. Add to that the litigious nature of our society, and you can see why public officials play every solution by the book.
And don’t condemn government by comparing it to business. The fact is that private enterprise in general and large corporations especially can be as hidebound as any bureaucracy.
Finally, let’s all take a deep breath before we decide to throw out our current “politics as usual” system in favor of some undefined, untried system that challengers around the country are promising.
Our current political system was not created out of whole cloth by a group of fat cats who decided they would like to be politicians. At every level it is a system that has evolved, as we grew from a nation of vigilantes and gunslingers into a heterogeneous community that sought other, more productive ways to resolve competing claims.
Today’s anti-establishment candidates promise to rise above politics as usual. But the fact is that as much as they plan to change Washington, Washington also changes them. Look at Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, anything but a puppet of the Tea Party that helped elect him. Or take Chris Christie, who is wheeling and dealing with Democrats and Republicans to effect some of the difficult budget changes that his predecessors promised but failed to achieve.
We don’t need to bring out the cigars in a back room. Maybe we could just come together over a cup of coffee or — dare I say? — tea.