Post by Kasey Clayton, Honors Civic Engagement

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Harrisonburg City Council Meeting, April 23. Photo Credit: Randi B. Hagi, The Citizen

I attended Harrisonburg’s City Council meeting on April 9th in an effort to better understand the role that city meetings play in communities. As I approached the building, I noticed a congregation of what appeared to be protestors holding signs outside of the city council’s meeting space. I soon learned that these advocates for change were protesting a proposed ordinance prohibiting pedestrians from lingering in particular medians within Harrisonburg. According to the organizer of the protest, “The ordinance targets panhandling and criminalizes the homeless population.” The ordinance, disguised as a safety measure, seems to be an effort to remove “beggars” from the city. It’s not necessarily an antibiotic for the homeless problem within Harrisonburg; rather, it’s a bandaid solution that’s ignoring the true root of the issue. Seeing these persons outside of the city council meeting made it all more real to me. This is one example from that night where I began to see civic leadership and informed citizens coming together to a council meeting in order to influence policy.

To begin, local boards do play an important role in organizing and engaging community members. The role of the city council is to represent the needs of their district and voice the people’s opinions. This requires listening to the various needs and concerns of the public they’re serving. They must also, individually and collectively, engage the community by educating the public on different matters happening on the local level such as projects and infrastructure changes within the city. According to Gomes and Streib in “Paid to Think: Redefining Civic Leadership”, “Another way to raise the level of cognitive awareness and support democracy is to provide the public with better (abundant and useful) data—critical thinking is a data-intensive activity.” Therefore, releasing information to the public in order for them to critically analyze the data themselves makes the citizens at the forefront of the decision-making process. Ensuring that the public is aware of and attending the city council meetings is another action the city council must promote; meetings are a primary way for the council to receive public feedback.

The effectiveness and success of the board is innately dependent upon civic involvement and community participation. We can then measure this effectiveness by following proposals through the proposal processes, seeing if they’re supported or not, and keeping tabs on the public’s opinions via polls and communication. Without the voice of the people, the council members are simply pushing their own agendas which isn’t representative of their district. The voices of the public are the backbone of civic structures, and without them, the board can’t fulfill their given duty. As illustrated at the city council meeting, the protestors were knowledgeable about the ordinance and its existence, actively pursuing a change in the proposed policy, and expressing a passion for the people affected by the ordinance. Even though the protestors were angered by the ordinance, it was a positive display of an effective dialogue between community members and council members.

In turn, we see an influence on policy and decision making processes at the local level and beyond. Once local governments enact the policies discussed at city councils, state level governments begin to take notice. Causes that the general public care about begin to gain more legitimacy as they work their way through the levels of government. Thus, city council acts as an intermediary between the community and local government. For example, at the city council meeting, a proclamation was proposed to recognize April as Census Awareness Month; this is one example of an issue starting in one area of government and trickling into others. As we saw at the Complete Count Commission, there is now a state and local push for counting everyone once, only once, and in the right place. In this way, the city council proves effective in policy and decision making.

As with any group tasked with organizing people and ideas, the city council faces a multitude of challenges. Perhaps the most strenuous challenge is the lack of what makes the board effective: civic involvement and civic capacity. As Chrislip and O’Malley note in “Thinking About Civic Leadership”:

“No one has the authority or influence to tell anyone else what to do unilaterally, and the complexity of the issues strains our capacity to comprehend how we might make progress. Our present-day multicultural society…further complicates attempts to gain agreement, and the current polarizing and divisive civic culture undermines efforts to workout differences in ways that better reflect the common good.”

In other words, complex issues demand complex solutions. This is often a daunting task that renders many into apathy. When an issue seems too complicated, it makes inaction a much more enticing idea. It is then the council’s duty to encourage the public to critically think and work together to solve these wicked problems. Similarly, in our politically charged climate filled with tension and governmental distrust, it’s imperative that we push collaboration and diversity now more than ever before. Through civil dialogue, we will see a union between citizens. In making the “enemy” wicked problems instead of people, our community will come together and see change like never before. City council is one such place to breed this political discourse and deliberative dialogue. The public organizations and councils are cornerstones for social change.

The city council is a wonderful example of how citizens’ voices are heard. Seeing as the council itself is made up of community members who have been engrossed in the area for at least a year, each member is invested in the well-being of the city and must truly align themselves with what they believe is best for the city as a whole. Whatever decisions they make on the council, the members will then be equally affected because they live in the same general area. Citizens’ voices are further heard in the act of appealing concerns to the council. At the meeting that I attended, one community member expressed her neighborhood’s concern for the traffic in Sunset Heights. She went on to explain a traffic calming plan that she and her neighbors crafted. This is an excellent example of civic leadership, and the city’s ability to think critically about issues that the city faces. As noted in “Thinking About Civic Leadership”, “Each of us shares directly in both the problems and opportunities of civic life, so we bear some responsibility for making progress.” Instead of awaiting government action, this neighborhood engaged in problem solving and then presented their plan to the council, thus demonstrating the importance of their voice as well as how much civic engagement matters to the council.

As the protestors surrounding the city council meeting interest demonstrated, the city council does play an important role in our local government. Having that public space to bring concerns, ideas, and proposals ensures that there’s a mediator between the citizens and local government that will hear and consider the public’s voice. Using information gathered at these meetings, other local commissions can begin to make positive change in the community; change that benefits all who speak out.

Postscript: As a result of public engagement and voicing concerns, the Harrisonburg City Council voted unanimously to table the proposed ordinance that would prohibit pedestrians from lingering in the medians at seven major intersections at the meeting on April 23.

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