Attending a city council meeting is one of the easiest ways to be involved in local politics, but many people don’t attend them because they have a reputation of being long and boring. When I attended my first city council meeting a few weeks ago, my experience was very different from what I was expecting. The meeting was long, but I didn’t find it boring at all. In fact, I stayed longer than I was planning because I was so intrigued by what was happening. That night the Planning and Zoning Board was discussing four proposals: two concerned with changing residential zoning to parking lot zoning, and two concerned with changing the zoning of a cemetery to allow for funeral services to take place at the cemetery. I went to the meeting hoping to experience democracy firsthand, but unsure of how democratic it would actually be. After sitting through just one city council meeting, I feel much more at ease about the state of democracy in the United States especially on the local level.
Before getting in to why the meeting demonstrates the resiliency of local democracies, I want to first describe what the meeting was like. The process for each set of proposals was the same: the proposal was explained, the discussion was opened up to the public, a representative from the group making the proposition spoke again, and then the board made its decision.
The board discussed and voted on the first set of proposals very quickly. Only one member of the public had an opposition to the parking spaces being built. Her concerns were acknowledged, and changes were quickly made to the proposal before passing it unanimously. The discussion over the second set of proposals was much longer because twelve people spoke in opposition. As stated earlier, the second set of proposals had to do with changing the zoning of a cemetery to allow for funeral services to also be held there. The cemetery is located in the middle of a neighborhood with lots of children, but without any sidewalks. Many parents were worried about the safety of their children if the services were allowed because of the increased traffic.
The emotions in the room while members of the public voiced their opinions were very tense. Whispers filled the room as the proposition was made and I could sense most people there didn’t want to see it passed. Despite the whispers, the board ending up approving the changes with only one person voting against them. My reaction was very similar to many of those in the room: I couldn’t believe that the board ignored what the citizens wanted. The more I thought about the meeting, however, the less I felt that the meeting was just another example of democracy failing to represent the public, and the more I felt that it actually showed the democratic resiliency of local governments.
To begin, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of people at the meeting. There were close to sixty people at the meeting I attended, most of whom were just there to listen. One of the easiest ways to participate in local politics is to go to city council and board meetings (Willingham). Most cities make it very easy to find dates, times, and locations of the meetings, and the board members welcome any opinions. I was very impressed by the number of people at the meeting I attended, and it gave me hope seeing that there were still people who took the time to be informed about what was happening in their local government.
Additionally, the fact that every citizen has a chance to give their opinion on the matter is something that people in most countries are not able to do. Allowing for such a high degree of inclusivity in ways other than just voting is important for the stability of democracy. However, as some political scientists point out, having the people directly vote on issues, like they do for referendums, can be dangerous because voters might not be informed enough to make a decision that is in their best interest (Achen and Bartels, 74-75). The thing about city council meetings that prevents that from being the case is that the public doesn’t actually vote on anything, only the board does. This process ensures that the people who do vote are still the most knowledgeable about the issue, but it still enables anyone to be able to give an opinion directly to the people voting, giving the public a feeling of
Another thing about the meeting that diminished my concern about the state of our democracy was the respect with which the board members treated the members of the public, and the respect the members of the public showed even after the decision was made. When the board voted for four proposals that no one from the public at the meeting supported, I thought there would be some sort of outrage. Even though the board voted against what the public wanted, they made it very clear that they did so not because they didn’t think the concerns were legitimate or because they didn’t care, but because the concerns the members of the public were raising just weren’t something that could be changed at that meeting. They made it clear that adding sidewalks and more speed limit signs was definitely something that could be done, it would just have to be brought up at a different meeting as a new proposal. Additionally, though the members of the public were very clearly upset about the decision, they all seemed to accept it. Allowing the members of the public to give their opinions about an issue makes its members more likely to accept whatever decision is made in the end because they feel they at least had a say in it.
After attending my first city council meeting, I can definitely say that I will be attending more in the future. Seeing the large number of people there, all respecting the opinions of each other, was a very enriching experience. It gives me hope for the future of the United States because meetings like those give people a voice and allow them to feel more vital to the political process. If more people start attending city council meetings, it could decrease the sense of discontent people have with the government, which would in turn strengthen democracy in the United States.
Achen, Christopher H., and Larry M. Bartels. Democracy for Realists. S.l.: Princeton University
Willingham, AJ. “25 Ways to Be Politically Active (whether You Lean Left or Right).” CNN.
January 23, 2017. Accessed April 15, 2019.