Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Get up, get out, get going!

In this week's column, I'd like to address the growing divide and disinterest in local government. A lot of attention has been paid to what is going on at the state government level lately because of Governor Scott Walker's budget repair bill and his proposed biennial budget, but local and county governmental bodies have remained largely unnoticed, at least from what I have seen.

As a reporter for the Sun Prairie Star, I cover the Dane County Board of Supervisors and the majority of Sun Prairie city meetings. When it comes to city meetings, attendance is pretty much non-existent. Whenever I attend Transit or Tourism Commission meetings, the only ones in attendance are board members, myself and individuals presenting to the board, if any. The Sun Prairie City Council Committee of the Whole meetings aren't any better. Occasionally a resident or two might attend, but that usually only happens when an issue pertains to them, such as when the committee discussed changing parking regulations for recreational vehicles [RVs].

I can't really speak to the actual City Council meetings, as that is something my boss covers, but the couple I attended were sparsely attended, with maybe 1-4 people there. Again, the only exception was the meeting a couple weeks ago when they approved changing the RV parking ordinance.

And Dane County Board? Pitiful. Now, I realize that the meeting is televised, but I find it disgraceful that 98 percent of the time, I am the ONLY media outlet actually in attendance at the meetings. Usually a couple Madison media outlets have a brief about the meeting in the couple days following the meeting, so I can only assume there are a couple reporters watching the meeting from home with a glass of wine.

Residents aren't any better. Unless there is a “hot button” issue or someone is being honored, residents don't bother showing up. Yes, there was an instance back in November when the county was proposing cutting funding for Human Services in the 2011 budget process when more than 100 residents showed up to oppose it, but most of the time between 0-12 people show up – a dozen out of the county's 488,000 residents.

Yet we love to complain. We complain about Walker, and the Wisconsin Legislature, about cuts to schools, libraries, state aid to municipalities, how come our taxes keep going up? What people don't realize is the connection between everything. The federal government gives aid to states for projects, the states give money in the form of shared revenue to county governments. County governments then decide how that shared revenue will be distributed among the local municipalities and the municipalities decide what is important for their city, town or village.

To me, the lack of people showing interest in their local governmental bodies says “we don't care about what happens in our town. Just make all the decisions without our input. After all, you know what is best.”

Now I'l admit, I never once attended a city meeting in my hometown of Antigo, Wis., so I can't tell you what it is like in the north end of the state. However, as part of my journalistic education at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, I had to attend Whitewater Common Council meetings for Professor Sam Martino's Reporting Public Affairs class.

In truth, the majority of people that showed up to those meetings were from our class, which had roughly 24 students, plus the teacher. However, at every single meeting I went to, I noticed between 5-15 residents in attendance, sometimes more. While even that does not sound like a lot, you have to remember that of the city's 14,000 population, roughly 10,000 are university students. So in a city of technically 4,000 people, 5-15 people is decent compared to other places.

I'm going to be completely honest here. I find the increasing trend of ignoring our own local governments to be very disappointing. With everything that goes on in our own lives, how can we think that what the government, be it local, state or federal, does not affect us and our everyday lives?

So as my title says, get up, get out and get going!

Related articles:

How Walker's biennial budget will impact Dane County:

How Walker's biennial budget will impact Wisconsin libraries:

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