The start of the new year is a good time to reset our priorities and resolve to be better than we were last year.
That’s equally important for ourselves as individuals, as well as it is for the public officials who serve us in local and state government.
So in case you’re still a little woozy from that midnight bubbly, here’s a little list of six resolutions we hope our representatives in government will take to heart in 2017.
Resolution No. 1: Resolve to always remember who put you where you are and what your role is. As a government official, you serve exclusively at the pleasure of the citizens. You’re not there to advance your career or pad your bank account or impose some kind of control over individuals or issues. The citizens are your bosses. They pay your salaries and for whatever equipment and space you use in your role of serving them. It all belongs to the people. You’re the caretaker of the public works. Never lose sight of that. (It’s amazing how many public officials do.)
Resolution No. 2: Resolve to be more transparent. This is kind of a corollary to Resolution 1. You have no right to behave in secret when doing the public’s bidding, other than what’s absolutely necessary to perform your job and to protect the identities of vulnerable populations under a very strict set of laws. If you need to educate yourself on the state’s Open Meetings Law and Freedom of Information Law, you can find that information on the Committee on Open Government’s website: www.dos.ny.gov/coog. Or you can invite Executive Director Bob Freeman in to meet with your board for a free refresher course.
As a public official, you have a legal and moral obligation to share information with the people you represent. You’ve got a legal and moral obligation to conduct the public’s business in the open and to share the public’s documents with them. If you’re not sure, err on the side of transparency. You’ll never go wrong. This is not your government; it’s the people’s.
And when a reporter calls, don’t put them off. They’re not doing this job for their health or the money. They’re doing it to share information with the people you represent. The more you share with a reporter, the more information that gets passed on to your constituents.
Resolution No. 3: Put the needs of your constituents first and carefully consider the consequences of your actions on the people you represent. It might seem like a good idea to invite a super-store into your community or build a retail corridor or allow a company to come in and build a major project or to keep a landfill open or allow a large housing development. These are decisions that must be made with their impact on local residents firmly at the forefront. If it seems like a good idea, and the citizens don’t want it, listen carefully to all of their concerns, no matter how annoying or frustrating that might be, and act in their best interests.
Resolution No. 4: Speak up when higher levels of government try to impose something that goes against what your constituents need, want or can afford. For instance, we don’t hear enough local public officials speaking out against unfunded mandates from state government that drive up local taxes while impeding local control. All school board leaders should be demanding their share of state aid and foundation aid, especially poorer districts that are subsidizing the local taxes of wealthier districts. All local government officials, municipal and school, should be speaking out against state-imposed policies that go against what their constituents desire. If you don’t complain, the problem will only be exacerbated and run contrary to the interests of your constituents.
On the state level, our legislators should be fighting against federal control over matters that rightly should be handled at the state level, such as education. New York’s representatives should be demanding our fair share of federal aid. In 2013, New York state received only 91 cents in return for every dollar it sent to Washington in taxes, a deficit of $19.9 billion. Only four other states had it worse.
Resolution No. 5: Explain yourself. All public officials should be willing to go on the record and state why they voted the way they did on an issue. Too many times, they hide behind voting blocs or their political leaders and refuse to state why they acted the way they did. The citizens deserve an explanation for why you acted so they can determine whether you are serving their best interests. If you’re afraid to state a reason or are unsure why you acted the way you did, you might want to reconsider why you took the position in the first place.
Resolution No. 6: Listen to the people. People have experiences and knowledge that they can share that could help you serve them better. Hold more public hearings. Seek out more opportunities to interact with your constituents. Invite them to participate in government. It is, after all, their government.
We know serving in government is sometimes difficult, and we appreciate your service. The long hours. The late-night phone calls and the emails. The endless meetings. The interruptions to your life. The hostility that some people can show toward you.
But if you’ve decided to serve in government, you’ve accepted the negatives with the rewards.
Resolve to be the best representative you can be in 2017. We’re counting on you.
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