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Refuse To Be Ignored

A civics lesson in speaking out



In case you missed President Donald Trump's inauguration speech, I wanted to point out what I see as its silver lining. Whether in earnest or not, he reminded Americans that sovereignty – or the supreme authority in the land – ultimately rests with 'We, the People' and not with him or any other elected official.

"What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people," he said. "Your voice, your hopes and your dreams will define our American destiny. And your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way."

"You will never be ignored again," he said. "Everyone is listening to you now."

I admit, I guffawed when I heard these words come from his lying lips, but it reminded me of many things I've heard coming from other politicians' mouths over the years.

Ours is a Representative Democracy, a government elected by the people to represent the people; a government that will, in theory, protect their interests and support their rights. Yet, the issue of sovereignty still comes up a lot. For example, when politicians talk about "states' rights" what they're really talking about is sovereignty, as in the state is more sovereign than the federal government.

Following that thinking, the county should be more sovereign than the state and the city more sovereign than the county and, finally, the people more sovereign than any governmental body.

In a time when the N.C. General Assembly is passing legislation that limits counties and municipalities from passing local ordinances, the argument that the people are most sovereign, falls apart. The same happens when the government limits public participation or fails to be thoroughly transparent.

If the people are indeed sovereign, then those in government need to allow them access to the inner workings of government, and governmental leaders need to actively listen to their constituents.

There's clearly a line between the everyday folk who are taking to the streets by the millions to shout their complaints because they don't feel heard otherwise and the ones in the Sovereign Citizens Movement, extremists who don't believe most laws apply to them.

So, where is the line between printing currency for your imaginary kingdom and protesting about feeling unheard?

Elaine Powell, the Chair of the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Commission, offered an option to county commissioners on July 6, 2016, that would help Charlotteans feel heard. She suggested the commission create a Citizen Engagement Advisory Commission (CEAC). She didn't do this as a public official, but as a citizen making use of the commission's public comment period.

Unfortunately, Powell was the only person to make use of the public comment period that night.

You can use your three minutes to bitch at them about that, or you can say whatever you want during the public comment period, within some parameters. Granted, commissioners often use the period to tweet or check email, but it's a start.

The point is, if you want to be heard and help guide elected officials via the will of the people you need to speak up, but first you need to tune in.

You can attend the meetings or watch via television or the internet. You can even watch past meetings online. You can view agendas for upcoming meetings and sign up for email alerts for a number of things. You have no excuse for not tuning in, you only need to decide how you'll do it.

But tuning in isn't enough. To be heard you must share your views, ideas, wants and needs. Do this by way of public comment periods or by writing or calling your elected officials. And keep in mind that there are public hearings and public meetings on a variety of topics happening quite often, during which you are afforded time to speak up.

If, after all that, you still feel unheard: Speak up again. Be like Elaine: Speak up a lot.

"Serious community building requires meaningful citizen engagement," she said in her efforts to create a CEAC. "Democracy is not where citizen input is bypassed, dismissed, disrespected, muted or extinguished. Our local government should be providing opportunities for all citizens to be involved at every level of decision making. Good decision making requires the knowledge, experience, views and values of the public. All of the public."

After she spoke, a thin crowd clapped and then-Chair Trevor Fuller said, "Let's follow up on that." More than six months later and nada. Fuller didn't respond to my request for comment, either.

So, I'll ask again.

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