While I last highlighted positive political developments in the Naugatuck Valley, several officials pointed out that fewer residents are attending local government meetings. I was not surprised by their concern as I have noticed the same thing in New Haven.
In fact, alders’ meetings are rarely beyond an hour and few New Haveners attend. Committee meetings may last longer as public participation is often allowed. In fact, my City Plan Commission meetings tend to be robust, especially lately with redevelopment concerns in New Haven. But these Valley politicians were concerned. They suggested, what is the point of democracy if the public rarely attends and participates in the process?
Nationally, public attendance at local meetings has decreased significantly, according to political science scholars Frank Byran and Robert Putnam in their works Real Democracy and Bowling Alone. They report that since the 1980s, Americans have not been active in local proceedings. Even worse, voting in local races has decreased as well (it was surprising in Connecticut that the voting turnout hovered at 30% of registered voters in November’s local races when in the past it has been 20-25% and in Connecticut cities turnout has been in the teens).
What have these authors and others attributed to the downturn in local voter and public participation turnout? Mostly, the nationalization of politics. Political parties harp more on what’s going on in Washington than in town halls. And with much of the media focused on Washington and even state Capitol politics, little attention is spent on local concerns. Just turn on your cable news and it’s apparent. I disconnected my cable last spring (unfortunately I am teaching United States Government next semester so I will have to reconsider this measure).
Of course, one cannot avoid what is going on nationally and I am hardly suggesting anyone should do so. But how can residents engage and follow what is going on locally? It seems impossible to know what is happening in your own backyard since legacy news media have found it hard to find the resources to focus on local news, and local political parties hardly focus on what is going on in your own town.
Do what democracy requires you to do: attend public meetings at your city or town hall. Half of anything in life is showing up, even if your party or local news media are not centering their attention on what is going on in your town.
In fact, make it a New Year’s resolution – and involve others – to attend at least one meeting a month.
Local public meetings are often at night and you can attend a specific commission or board you’re interested in (zoning and planning, education, economic development, and so many others). Or consider attending a legislative body meeting like an aldermanic, selectmen or council meeting. You might surprise yourself and by observation also become aware of local concerns. You may even wish to speak, as some towns and cities allow public participation at the very beginning of their meetings. And sometimes these meetings can be insightful and dramatic. You could end up serving on a commission or board in the future.
As a professor, I require my students to attend a meeting at their respective town or city hall for a class project. They often moan at the beginning of the semester about this assignment. But after they attend a meeting, many students have said that few residents showed up and also that they were often the youngest people in the room. Some even said they were approached by public officials to be a part of the process by speaking, or that they should consider joining a commission or committee.
My students often return asking why there is such a generational gap at these meetings. Baby Boomers have mostly been the ones engaged in local government, as many of them tend to follow local issues and are semi-retired or retired, and can dedicate time and resources to participate in public meetings or organizations. Few of my generation or younger generations are able to do so. But democracy requires individuals to participate and at the local level, voting and engaging in public forums are a must.
With the beginning of a new year comes a new semester for students and educators. Fortunately, several graduate students approached me to teach a class on comparative local politics, which includes our attending area local meetings. So there is hope that some are interested in engaging locally. Do not be surprised if you see me and several students at a public meeting near you. I will certainly offer some critiques about local proceedings in a future column or two.
Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He also serves on the New Haven City Plan Commission and Republican State Central Committee.
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