Our Opinion: Take small steps to stay educated; Everyone should attend at least one local public meeting to boost discussions, stay informed

Published 10:28 am Thursday, December 8, 2016

As the new year approaches, we’d like to suggest a resolution: We propose every Mower County citizen attend one — just one — public meeting in 2017.

The city of Austin’s annual truth in taxation meeting got what city staff called a record turnout on Tuesday night.

“I must admit we have more people here than we’ve ever had,” Austin Director of Administrative Services Tom Dankert said of the turnout.

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“Which isn’t too many,” Mayor Tom Stiehm replied.

What was that record turnout? It was seven people — with two being media members and a third being Austin Area Chamber of Commerce Director Sandy Forstner.

The low attendance is nothing new. In fact, most public meetings in Mower County and countless other communities occur with few — to zero — people attending unless they are directly involved with something at a particular meeting.

At many Mower County board meetings, for example, a Herald reporter is the only non-county official/worker in attendance.

We get it, despite the efforts of people like Dankert, Mower County Coordinator Craig Oscarson and Austin Public Schools Executive Director of Finance and Operations Mark Stotts to explain financial and government data in a concise and clear way, budget and levy meetings aren’t as exciting as, say, Thursday Night Football, “The Big Bang Theory” or “Access Hollywood” — just to name a few things that will air on television tonight around the time of Mower County’s 6 p.m. truth in taxation meeting.

But lets look at the numbers: The county’s levy is proposed at $20.34 million, the city’s is $5.3 million and Austin Public Schools is $6.6 million. That’s $32.24 million in taxes.

That’s your money, Mower County. What have you done to learn about how that money is spent?

Another telling sign: In the days following Tuesday’s city of Austin taxation meeting, we witnessed a discussion on Facebook of nine people commenting on a graphic used at the meeting — that’s two more people than the seven that attended. And, zero people spoke to the City Council publicly about the budget on Tuesday or at prior council meetings.

Now we’re not criticizing people who debate issues — we encourage that. We just implore people to begin taking more time to investigate, research and ponder issues and viewpoints.

No matter how much or how little you effort you put into staying informed, you can do a little more.

Low turnout and attention from the public has  struck a chord with us  recently because of the political and social climate. Fake news and conspiracies have garnered much attention after the presidential election. President-elect Donald Trump fired a member of his transition team for spreading fake news about Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. And on Sunday, a fake news story led North Carolina man to fire and assault rifle inside a restaurant.

People are becoming almost habitually distrusting of any and all information.

But consider this: Local government and local government meetings serve as the public’s key entry point to government, and it’s often the place where a single person can have the most significant impact.

The people serving on local boards are your neighbors and fellow community members. You can keep them accountable and discuss issues with them in a more direct and vibrant way than you can with Trump or President Barack Obama.

So in 2017, put your opinions into action. Take just one small step to get involved and educated about public issues for the good of the community.