Public needs bigger role in governing

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By The Staff

Dear Editor,

In your March 30 editorial, this passage caught my attention: “We urge the public to come and become informed before the council adopts the budget on May 13.”

This brings home a fundamental flaw in our current form of governance in our county. If the public’s function is solely to become informed, then one might ask, why bother?

There are some token, after-the-fact opportunities for “public comment” at meetings that, unless published in the Monitor, never gets recorded in any documents made available to the public.  Any kind of citizen vote on the budget is expressly prohibited in our charter.

Outside of Los Alamos, the first Tuesday in March marks grassroots democracy in action across the country.

Just next door, Santa Fe citizens, in their municipal election March 4, voted on all capital improvement projects and on several charter amendments, including one approving instant runoff elections, counter to their city council’s recommendation.

Towns across New England continue a centuries’ old tradition of direct democracy, the annual town meeting. These meetings would continue every Tuesday until all business was completed.  Sometimes they would drag on into May.

I attended the town meetings in Wellesley and Foxboro, Mass.  We would vote, literally, on everything: citizen-generated petitions, salaries for policeman, school calendars, capital projects and, yes, the complete budget.

A couple of highlights I remember:

• Wellesley, 1960.  Agenda item: Shall women teachers be accorded equal pay as men teachers?  After two full nights of discussion, the item was defeated. It passed a year or two later, but not before the woman who was the head of the science department, and others, had resigned.

• Foxboro, 1970.  Agenda item: Shall the schools build a new junior high school at a cost of (I recollect) $7,000,000?  After three Tuesday nights (i.e. weeks) of haggling about and redesign of the line item for the $7,000 perimeter fence, the rest passed with little discussion.

One item that never was controversial was the purchase of new fire engines.

If Los Alamos would truly like to engage its citizenry, we need to at a minimum have March elections on all capital projects costing more than $1 million.

Far better for all of our citizenry, and therefore for the county, would be to replace our monocratic county council-only form of government with annual town meetings on all county and school business, and on all citizen petitions.

Richard “Skip” Dunn

White Rock