Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Small Town Politics

by Annette Dashofy

Unless you live under a rock, you know that the nation is in its usual election-year frenzy. Everyone thinks THEIR candidate is going to change the world and make their life better. Well, guess what. Probably not. Regardless of whether the next President’s name is Obama, Clinton, McCain or Huckabee (President Huckabee???) odds are, not much will change that directly affects any of us. If you want to see government truly at work, you have to look closer to home.

I attended our local township supervisors’ meeting the other night. I’m ashamed to admit that the last time I went to one was back in the seventies when I was supporting the movement to start a real ambulance service in our area. At the time, our EMS consisted of a red hearse manned by firemen with basic first aid training. We succeeded.

I also attended local meetings a few years ago when we were trying to block the building of a State Correctional Institute a mile from the high school and then-proposed (now real) elementary center. We succeeded again.

On a local level, politicians and government can actually DO something.

My reason for attending the township supervisors’ meeting this time was much less activist in nature. In fact, I just sat in the back of the room and made comments about the weather with another township resident. My reason for venturing out into the cold was simply RESEARCH. My next novel involves local politics. Dirty politics in its grassroots form. So I figured I’d better spend some time in that world.

And what a world. Most of it was fairly boring stuff. The three supervisors voted to buy a new/used police car. A report was made on the new dump trunk they had recently purchased. A lawyer made a brief presentation regarding his bid to get nearly 80 acres of farmland rezoned so his client could build yet another housing development. Hunters in the audience moaned. There goes their hunting grounds. Others pointed out that our tiny corner of the universe desperately needs expansion and growth. Nothing was decided, but I’m willing to bet the hunters are out of luck.

Then the fun started. The public got their chance to voice complaints and get action. Most of the issues had to do with trash in the neighbor’s yard or a dilapidated house creating a hazard. These things seem small potatoes, but think about it. A concerned citizen can walk into a meeting and talk directly to the guy doling out citations, give him an address, and have the situation dealt with. One lady complained that local cops were griping about not wanting to respond to her neighborhood anymore (probably because this gal seemed to complain about everything from her neighbor’s trash blowing into her yard to the kids urinating next to her house). But she spoke up and the supervisor who deals directly with the Chief of Police promised to talk to the guys.

The evening was not without one major revelation for me. I’ve been told, though, that EVERYONE knows this, but I did not. When you see a pair of sneakers tossed over an electric line, that’s a sign that kids can buy drugs there. There’s been a pair of sneakers hanging on the line outside our yoga center for years! And (duh) kids hang out on the steps in front of the building all the time. Is there anyone out there besides me who DIDN’T know this!

Anyhow, research or not, I think I’ll be going back. It was interesting to find out what’s going on in the township. And I found some great new characters for my next novel. Besides, now I know what to do if the neighbor’s trash blows into my yard. Forget writing your congressmen. Go to a meeting of your LOCAL government if you want to experience REAL change.


Anonymous said...

Actually, many levels of government are accessible if you really try. Calling your national or state senator or legislator's office can often get action. Here in Pittsburgh, calling the mayor's hotline sometimes works, too.

When I worked for the electric company, I found it heartening that any person, even a non-customer, can file a formal complaint against a public utility with the Public Utility Commission and get a hearing in front of an administrative law judge. OK, most cases are decided in the utility's favor, but that's not because the system is crooked -- it's because most utilities are smart enough to resolve the complaints that have merit before they get to hearings.

Annette said...

Gina, I've called my national senators' offices. Never talked directly to the guy, though. But my state rep? Yeah. Again, the closer to local, the easier it is to come face-to-face with a government official. Sure, you can let your voice be heard on a higher level, but you're less likely to be able to wave your finger in his face when your miffed about something.

I remember when we were fighting the prison, I took note of which congressmen and senators and commissionners etc bothered to come to the meetings. If they couldn't take the time to show up, I didn't vote for them again.

Martha Reed said...

I have wondered for years why there were sneakers hanging from the phone lines - the best explanation I could come up with was a lot of neighborhood bullies. Thanks for solving this mystery for me!

Annette said...

Martha, I'm just relieved that I wasn't the only one who didn't know what that meant!

Joyce Tremel said...

If you go to enough of these meetings, you'll see it's the same people complaining most of the time. Some don't have anything better to do.

And that sneaker thing? It's just an urban myth. Some group in Harrisburg even did an experiment using digital mapping to disprove the theory.

Annette said...

Joyce, I did recognize one gal there as a local complainer no matter WHERE she goes...the supervisors meeting or the grocery store.

And rats. I thought I was on to something with this sneaker thing.

But digital mapping? Someone had too much time on their hands.

Anonymous said...

For YEARS I've gotten calls from the Central Blood Bank to donate, and no matter how many times I asked to be taken off their list, it never worked. The callers were always poorly trained and nasty.

When I got a call a month ago, I finally decided to make a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. Two weeks later I got an email from them that included an apology from the manager and an assurance I'd been taken off their phone list.

I wondered, "Why didn't I do this years ago?"

Score one for effective complaining!

Annette said...

"Effective complaining." I like that! Goodness knows, most complaining certainly isn't very effective other than making the complainer feel better.

Anonymous said...

School board meetings---now that's a hornet's nest of characters!

Tory, I'm going to try that Better Business thing on the kitchen & bath company that won't leave me alone.


Anonymous said...

I covered more than my share of borough council and school board meetings--trust me, more boring than anything, but occasionally they provided much entertainment, and a lot of chances for head-shaking at the degree to which our local government's decisions are based on petty jealousies and idiosyncratic characters. I've seen too many mean-spirited, boorish small-time officials move on from boro council to State Rep or Senator to have much faith in their ability to govern sensibly. But, you're right, Annette, the local level of government provides a wealth of good info and ideas. As for the sneakers on the wires, I was told they memorialized fallen (that is, dead) gang members. Maybe it's my turn to complain to someone--city, electric or phone company--to cut them down.

Becky said...

About the sneakers is it an urban myth I think not. Ask a teen. I always wonder about them. So I just asked my 22 year old what it meant and he said it means this is where you can buy drugs. I never knew! I also thought it was bullies at work.

Becky said...

Just another observation. The last pair of sneakers I saw hanging on a line where brand new an looked expensive I felt sorry for whoever lost them thinking once again bullies at work. Looks like the drug dealers are making alot of money.

Anonymous said...

Sneakers: Not urban myth in an area near me. There's a pair over the line in a really poor section of the county--inhabited shacks with some of the walls missing poor. Big drug sales area according to the sheriff.

Annette said...

Maybe nobody bothered to tell the teenagers that the sneaker thing was urban myth. From what I've been able to determine, at least two locations marked by sneakers really ARE frequented by kids buying and selling drugs. Both are spots where kids can see the cops coming a mile away and they scatter at the first sign of a police cruiser.