Learning about government through meetings

Published 3:01 pm Sunday, October 2, 2016

I stumbled on an easy educational opportunity recently: Make students regularly attend local public meetings.

I know what you’re thinking: “But public meetings are boring, Jason” or “But city council meets when I’m prepping my Monday Night Football spread.”

As someone who attends more public meetings than you, let me point out a few things: 1. Yes, they aren’t praised for their excitement and witty repartee, 2. A lot happens and you really need to a regular attendee to catch most of it, and 3. They teach lessons about our governmental system that can’t truly be taught in a classroom.

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First, let’s kick this off with the anecdote of what inspired this fair column:

I was at a public board meeting recently when the board adjourned for 15 minutes for a break before a scheduled public hearing. With my laptop handy, I took to writing a story during the break, but I couldn’t help but eavesdrop a bit as the board members chitchatted.

Soon, a non-elected official returned to the room, sat next to me and asked me what he’d missed. I gave him the quick rundown from what I’d overheard, even though I was trying to ignore everyone and work: one talked about a house project, a few discussed their golf games and another talked about his or her son’s sort-of dating. We laughed, and I joked I should start a new section in the Herald for things overheard at public meetings.

They next day I got a good start at another public meeting:

Elected official one: “They say trees are 90 percent air.”

Elected official two: “Tell that to my golf ball.”

I know, folks. This is exciting, riveting stuff; cue the page views.

While this might not seem like an important civics lesson at first glance, I’ve learned more about how government works from attending public meetings in my seven-plus years as a reporter than I did in my 17 years of education.

My first political life lesson: Politicians are human beings, not robots meant to carry out their constituents collective desires. This might seem fairly obvious, but we are quick to panic about politicians shortcomings and failings, especially on a national level.

During a time when our nation is focused on our political system’s shortcomings, it feels only right to remember that it is a system comprised of and led by bunch of imperfect people each leading their own day-to-day lives and facing their own personal challenges.

Now I attended a select few public meetings in school and learned about the systems of government, but I got a crash course in how a local government truly works after starting as a reporter — and that crash course is still going. Every week, I go to a public meeting, learn a bunch of stuff, and try to pass that information along to the public in the easiest, clearest possible way.

Lets face it, we like to boil and strip things down to the simplest form, while most things are chaotic and complicated. In simple terms, we’re taught government is simple in its grassroots form: People elect their peers to make decisions and serve as their voice. Easy right?

But then you remember there’s township, city, county, state and federal governments that all have to work together and statutes and laws guiding each and many, many, many different opinions on the right way to do things.

Some talk around the 2016 election has centered on a lack of participation and interest in national politics. For example, the New York Times found that only 9 percent of the population chose Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the nominees for the two major parties.

If we want to raise children who are interested in our nation’s politics, get them interested on the local level. That will give lessons to how our government works and how the decisions of each branch of government trickles down to the next level. Start with the most accessible: school board, city council and county board.

This is all a long way of saying: Our system of governing is complicated, folks. But if we can start by learning a bit more about the local level, it’ll be easy to work our way up the ladder.

That starts with attending a public meeting or two — or several.