Of course there is no single answer, but in my opinion an engaged citizen reads their local newspaper, has a general sense of what is happening, and although they may have pet passions and interest and even certain biases or political leanings, can see or appreciate a big picture and a general view of things. They can see other opinions and perspectives. These people may or may not volunteer. They may or may not sit on non-profit boards and attend various meetings — but without fail they will take the time to understand the issues, even the candidates — and they ALWAYS vote.
There is another type of citizen, one that I was honestly surprised to encounter when I first got involved in local government — they are the ‘temporarily engaged’ or the ‘single focus’ citizen. These folks tend to be loudest, write the most letters to the newspaper, but depending on the time of year, the issue — the names are different, they come on strong, and disappear almost as fast they appeared. Although these folks have good intentions, they tend to only follow things, attend meetings, or generally care about what is going on when it directly affects them. When the perceived direct impact is over, you never hear from them again, or at least not until the next issue that directly impacts them. These are sometimes the same folks who see all of life and community through one specific lens. Often it is an extreme passion for something very noble. It could be anything from libraries, fire services, animals, arts & culture, recreation to a whole number of other things. Lots of the people who are also passionate about noble community services see a bigger picture, but you do get a few of these ‘single focused’ folks who honestly believe that their passion is the only important one, and the only one worthy of public attention and funding.
It should likely not have come as a shock that some people are only engaged when it directly impacts them. That is likely a form of human nature.
However, the reality and risk of being ‘temporarily engaged’ or ‘single focus’ citizen- is that by time an issue directly impacts you or your passion, you are often getting involved very late in the game and operating from a position of “reaction” and “defensiveness”.
Truly engaged citizens have enough of a general understanding about trends, discussions, planning exercises, zoning process etc. that they are less likely to be caught off guard, and they are more likely to have opportunity to add meaningful input and help to shape public policy. Also, by having a broader perspective, their opinions seem more balanced and relevant and their input is often more useful to elected officials. It’s a lot easier to listen to and relate with someone who can provide calm well balanced input into a concept around land use planning prior to a zoning application, than it is to have someone yelling at you about how you are going to wreck their neighbourhood and decrease their property values after land was rezoned years earlier.
We are all busy. Things like reading a newspaper and showing up to vote on election day, all take time. Local governments are continuing to try to find new ways and methods of engagement, whether it is facebook pages, columns in a newspaper, or planning exercises with barbecue lunches. However, there is some personal responsibility as well. Only you can choose what kind of citizen you want to be. Do you want to be engaged, involved and part of the solution, or do you want to be reacting and only paying attention when something horrible is about to happen that directly impacts you or your pet passion? The choice is yours!
Gerry Taft is mayor of the District of Invermere and a Regional District of East Kootenay director for the Columbia Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .