Get involved or get ignored

By Dan Bookham | Sep 16, 2010

midcoast — I am a fan of numbers and statistics. Not, I hasten to add, because a good dose of math is a useful tool for obfuscation but rather because a nice clear number can often illustrate a situation much better than 1,000 words. With that in mind, consider the following question:


Why is it with 41,000 residents in Knox County and 38,000 in Waldo County I seem to see only the same couple of hundred people at any manner of meetings about our region's economic future?


To be clear, this is not an indictment or judgment on those who participate or choose not to. Rather it's a question that's designed to induce a greater degree of introspection as to whether we are asking the right questions the right way in order to encourage greater public participation across age, socioeconomic, and geographic groupings. To me it seems to be quite evident that we are not quite there, but how we get to a point of broader participation is beyond my grasp just yet.


Again, I want to note that this is not a dismissal of existing efforts. The people who do contribute to ongoing conversations on issues of community, economics, the environment, and the future of Maine dedicate hours of time and millions of watts of brain power to a series of vexing subjects, often with little more than damnation by faint praise as a reward. And for those who are not engaged even on edges of the conversation often have one large, overwhelming reason not to be more involved: the demands of daily life.


I am a realist. I understand that waiting for every last resident to join the conversation goes beyond fantasy into the realm of delusion. What I do hope to see however is more of a revolving door or an infusion of new blood at community meetings, conversations, debates, council sessions, committee or task force gatherings, or even town meetings. New voices often mean new ideas or new approaches to old challenges. Furthermore, increased participation allows communities to check in with themselves with greater confidence that closer to the full spread of opinion is being heard. As Winston Churchill once said, "Jaw-jaw is better than war-war". In our context, this means the more people who speak up at the start the less likely it is that a colossal blow-up occurs at the 11th hour that derails a project, divides a community, and dispirits volunteers.


I often hear complaints that the various forms of town or city government in Maine lead to too drawn out a process when it comes to decision making, and on occasion it seems that some things that require town, Selectboard, or council approval could more properly be dispatched as an administrative function of town management. On the big issues and big conversations however increased public participation is vital, otherwise those of us involved in community and economic development risk getting trapped in a self-confirming feedback loop. Get involved, or unfortunately, risk getting ignored!

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