Wednesday, April 17th, 2019: the mayor opens the City Council meeting in Conyers, Georgia with a prayer and the pledge. This is not an unusual practice for a town like Conyers: rural, firmly conservative and seated in the Bible Belt. However, it takes me completely by surprise. This stark difference between the traditions of local and higher governments is only the first in a long chain of surprises I would experience in the hour-long meeting.
The room smelled something like Wednesday night church. The back half of the room was broken into two sections of red-cushioned, metal-framed seats. The entire right section was packed with people, a few wearing orange shirts with the words “Leadership Rockdale” (the county Conyers sits in) printed on them. The room was abuzz with the sound of lively conversation, people eagerly discussing things lost in the smoke of chatter. I sat in the back row, laptop open to take notes, surprised and proud of the turnout in my community.
After the prayer and pledge, the mayor commenced the first order of business: congratulating a local judge, Nancy Bills. Her achievements stunned me. She was the President of the Georgia Council of State Court Judges, had presided over 190,000 cases, and held 235 judicial sessions a year on average. My recently pumped pride in my community only rose with the realization that such an important figure called Conyers her home. I began to wonder: Was this kind of occurrence regular? How many local legends   had I missed in all these years of meetings?
The next item on the agenda dealt with the “Leadership Rockdale Class” I’d seen written on shirts of some of the attendees. This year the class had done something far beyond the scope of anything they’d done before: they’d built a park. They raised $11,000 for materials and built the park entirely on volunteer work, something that would’ve costed around $50,000 had it been contracted out. At the request of the class, the park was named the “Unity Garden at Oldetown,” a motion that passed without objection. By this point, I was completely taken with the Conyers community. My sense of pride in my city was swelling. I couldn’t believe how many people were so invested in the community and in the local government, and I was fully resolved to be a part of each and every council meeting from then on out.
Then, at the end of the Unity Garden motion, everything changed. The mayor announced that the meeting would take a more legislative turn while the city council handled official affairs. At this point, there were a mere 30 minutes left in what was only an hour-long meeting. And yet, even as the mayor was still talking and reminding people they were welcome to stay, they filed out. I sat in my seat, shocked. I watched a crowd of nearly fifty fade to six people, myself included. Even the heroic judge left. I couldn’t believe it–these people, so invested in their community, couldn’t be bothered to stay another 30 minutes in a meeting for which they had scheduled time, had driven to, and were sitting in? The complete and utter lack of interest in local and community governance from a group that called themselves “Leadership Rockdale” was flooring. My overgrown pride in the members of my city dropped with every single person who walked out of the door.
Why? What could cause such community-oriented citizens to show such astounding lack of interest in their community government? A variety of studies have been done on the participation in local government, and while results are fairly consistent on who participates in local government, the question still remains: “Why?” As soon as the meeting resumed I found myself lost in the formal decorum used as the councilors passed Ordinance 1164, something I barely managed to write down before they’d moved on to the next topic. I found myself asking the question: “Why would I bother with local politics?”
For a city council meeting, there aren’t many answers. Citizens aren’t obligated to attend meetings, and the city still functions fine without every voting-age citizen showing up to watch the proceedings. After all, isn’t that the idea of representatives? Voter turnout for local elections almost never reaches 30%, so it’s unlikely anyone wants to check up on their city councilor. Unfortunately, the main reason people participate in local government meeting is that there’s something wrong. Whether it’s an issue with a new code or complaints about a bad road, people only show up to a city council meeting if they have a problem.
This leaves the city council (and all local government organizations) as not much more than a problem-solver for petitioners. This isn’t a bad thing on its own. However, the city government receives a lot of negative attention when there’s an issue, yet almost no positive attention when they do something good. Sure, people will notice it and be happy about it, but they won’t show that happiness in their approval of City Hall. This leaves the city government as a sad servant of the people: running around, desperately trying to manage the needs and wishes of the citizens–punished for mistakes but not rewarded for success–only to wake up and do it again the next day. As long as people continue acting like this, city councils across the country will continue to fill a half-role: rather than being motivated to fix real issues, they will simply continue to appease the handful of citizens paying attention.