The Importance of Participatory Democracy

By Mike Barhorst - Contributing columnist

Nearly everyone who has served in public office very long has uttered a pithy comment about the importance of citizen involvement. From President Dwight D. Eisenhower (“Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen. …”) to Founding Father and President James Madison (“A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to Farce or Tragedy or perhaps both.”), nearly every president has offered his insight on the subject.

Public meetings are one way for people to come together to express their opinions, hear a public speaker, or plan a strategy. The function of public meetings serves an important role in participatory democratic government. An engaged and impassioned public strengthens our democracy. When conducted decorously, public meetings can build a feeling of community.

The success of public deliberation relies on those interested in an issue or project. It is essential that the voices of those interested, whether in favor of or opposed to an issue or project, be heard in a structured and productive environment. Thus, public meetings are essential forums designed to present ideological differences in a community-wide conversation.

Sidney’s City Council meets publically three times a month. In addition to councilmembers, Sidney’s council meetings are attended by members of the administration and staff. Only rarely do members of the public attend.

Attending a single meeting may not be very informative. Notwithstanding the fact that meetings can be long and in some cases tedious, it may appear that council is “rubber-stamping” items because there is little discussion prior to a vote.

That is because nearly every topic has been discussed on multiple occasions at previous meetings, and there is little left to say on the subject once it is time for the formal vote. Indeed, some topics are discussed for years. An example would be the water source project, which I can personally attest has been discussed for more than four decades.

Most discussion takes place at the workshop sessions held the first Monday of each month. It is during those sessions that topics are discussed in depth, and councilmembers ask multiple questions. Often, councilmembers request additional information so that they gain a better understanding of a particular topic.

Occasionally, a special public meeting will be held to provide additional information about a specific topic. There are numerous examples from the recent past, including meetings with residents who will be impacted during the year by a street reconstruction project (most recently Fielding Road, Port Jefferson Road, state Route 47 West and Wapakoneta Avenue) and those impacted by the mandated inspection and if necessary, the repair/replacement of their sanitary sewers.

For the past several years, the city of Sidney has been working with the Ohio Department of Transportation to improve traffic safety along state Route 47 as it passes through Sidney. Of the 10 intersections with the highest accident rates, eight of them are along that route between the west entrance of Walmart to Walnut Avenue.

The first three phases are now complete, with the most recent being the realignment of Folkerth Avenue and Wayfarer Court. The fourth phase is that portion of state Route 47 from Fourth Avenue to Walnut Avenue.

There has already been impassioned debate both for and against the project. There has also been impassioned debate about proposed components of the project. Inasmuch as the safety solutions that will be recommended to council are still in the design phase, we can only speculate as to what the final design will include. None of us have seen the final design recommendations. They have not yet been completed, and won’t be for some time.

A public meeting is being planned to share the proposed corridor design with members of the community. That meeting is scheduled for Thursday, March 16. The meeting is being held at the Sidney-Shelby County Senior Center (304 South West Avenue). It will begin promptly at 6 p.m.

Please consider this your personal notification of the meeting. If you have an interest in the project, it is important that you attend. The meeting will provide the opportunity to gather facts from a reliable source — those who are working to alleviate the traffic problems along that stretch of the highway rather than relying on word of mouth that may be more rumor and opinion than fact.

In our increasingly polarized society the “win-lose” or the “us against them” mentality often commandeers the individual’s ability to look past their own position to see the greater good of their opponent’s position. It is my sincere hope that all community members, in favor of or in opposition to the project will attend the March 16 public meeting with an open mind to learn more about the project from those directly involved, share their positions in a respectful manner and leave with a stronger sense of community and understanding.

By Mike Barhorst

Contributing columnist

The writer is the mayor of Sidney.

The writer is the mayor of Sidney.