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Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016

Good government needs public input

Sunday, September 7, 2003

You'd have to be a true political junkie to have any great interest in the brouhaha that has surrounded the Sikeston City Council's recent appointment to the Board of Municipal Utilities. As a past 8-year member of that Board, I probably follow the actions of the Board more than most. But this potentially embarrassing situation has the public examining the ways that appointments are made.

In a brief summary, the Council voted this week to place a new member on the Board in a close 4-3 vote. Both candidates discussed for the Board appointment had excellent qualifications and both would serve the Board, the city and the public well.

But what happened apparently is this. In a closed briefing session, most of the Council members seemed to believe that an agreement had been reached on which of the two candidates would get the appointment. That way - or so the theory goes - the public discussion can be brief, non-controversial and form a smooth transition in the appointment process.

But when it came time to officially vote in the open Council meeting, at least one Council member had changed their mind and the vote came out 4-3 for the second candidate. City officials are now examining a potential conflict of interest since the successful appointee works in a utility-related field. But that issue to me is a red herring.

The real issue is and has always been the process by which the Council acts on city business. This is nothing new. Let me repeat, the process of ample discussions before the public meetings is not a new approach. It goes back for the 35 years or so I have covered City Council meetings here. And it's not necessarily a bad approach.

The eventual resolution of who takes over the BMU board seat is less important than the process by which candidates are selected. It should never be a popularity contest. It should always be based on qualifications, interest and dedication. When personalities and politics enter the discussion, the public loses.

But let me also say without reservation, that the fault does not always lie at the feet of the City Council. The public is largely to blame for their lack of interest and participation in city decisions. You can count on one hand the number of residents who actively follow and voice their view on city decisions. And though I recognize its value, Speakout is not the sole vehicle by which the public can allow their thoughts to be known.

With ward representation in our city now, perhaps we're seeing a new trend in city government. That can be both good and bad. We need to avoid neighborhood spats from each ward and instead look at the good for the entire community. But when votes are counted by wards, you'll always have individuals who vote what they believe are the wishes of their specific voters and not the community as a whole. The City Council does not lack for openness. It lacks public participation. And participation will come when apathy evaporates and we recognize that we all have a stake in the future of this community. Removing apathy may be a harder task than anyone imagined.

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