Want to help democ­racy? Serve on a gov­ern­ment board

The Morning Call - - TOWN SQUARE - Olga Ne­gron is vice pres­i­dent of Beth­le­hem City Coun­cil.

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.

CHRIS SHIP­LEY/THE MORN­ING CALL

An unusu­ally large crowd gath­ered at a Beth­le­hem Plan­ning Com­mis­sion meet­ing in 2015 to re­view a pro­posed zon­ing plan for the Martin Tower cam­pus.

Olga Ne­gron

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