Want to help democracy? Serve on a government board
The current fixation of the national news media on the 2020 presidential election might lead many citizens to believe that deciding which candidate to vote for in the next presi- dential race is the most important thing they can do between now and November 2020. I want to tell citizens something different.
Voting in national elections is important, but it’s only one of many ways that citizens can fulfill their duty to contribute to the governance of their communities and country.
I’m Councilwoman Olga Negron, vice president of Bethlehem City Council and the first woman of color elected to Bethlehem City Council. Getting elected to City Council was not a matter of chance or luck. I’ve been civically engaged all my life. Before running for local office, I served in many volunteer positions within the city, such as on the Planning Commission, the Public Library Board and many other nonprofit boards.
As a member of these governing bodies, and now as an elected official, I’m here to tell you that our city needs your civic engagement.
A few highly visible decision-making positions in local government are elected positions and each of us has to be a resident of our municipality in order to hold that post (mayor, city council, etc.). However, that’s not the only way to be part of the decisions about what happens in our city. There are many, other extremely important nonelected positions in local government that need to be filled by volunteers, such as positions on the Public Library Board, Fine Arts Commission, Housing Authority, Human Relations Commission, Board of Historical and Architectural Review, City Planning Commission, Environmental Advisory Council, Historic Conservation Commissions,
Parking Authority, Recreation Commission, Redevelopment Authority, Zoning Hearing Board. (A full list for the Bethlehem can be found at: www.bethlehem-pa.gov/about/authorities/index.html).
Although some positions have residency requirements, in many cases people who sit on these commissions and boards don’t live in our city. We also have individuals who have been members of the same board or commission for 15 to 20 years, and some individuals are members of two or three boards at the same time. Why, you might wonder? Some of these positions require an expertise (electrical, health, financial, etc.). And these are also nonpaid positions, which makes it more difficult to find individuals willing to serve.
Many times when there are vacancies, they need to be filled rather quickly and the person charged with selecting nominees is “stuck” with the same few individuals. However, it’s important to know that not all positions require a specific expertise; most just require a dedicated person with common sense and love for our city who is willing to be the voice of their community.
As a member of city council, I understand that one of my roles is to provide a check and balance on the mayor of the city and at the same time to be the voice of the people. But the people in our city have diverse voices, and what we need is more of that diversity working in our government. That’s why I’m reaching out to challenge every single one of you to get civically engaged, to share your talents and put them to work for the betterment of our city. Don’t wait until you are negatively impacted by a government decision to get involved in local decisions.
A functioning democracy requires citizens who care what their government is doing and who put the time in to make it work for them. At the municipal level, you can have an impact on the political process. Contact your local office with your resume and let them know you care and you want to be involved. Go to your municipality’s website, find out when meetings take place, start attending meetings, visualize sitting at the table and bringing a new perspective to what gets decided.
When citizens get involved in local government, they make it possible for government to do more than elected officials could accomplish alone. Just this year, the city’s Environmental Advisory Council proposed several ordinances that would otherwise never become a possibility. When members of local boards and commissions tell us what they think is good for the city, their views can have a significant impact on the decisions that elected officials make.
By getting involved in local government, you can make a big difference in the governance of our collective life and community long before the 2020 presidential election arrives.
An unusually large crowd gathered at a Bethlehem Planning Commission meeting in 2015 to review a proposed zoning plan for the Martin Tower campus.