As an elected public official, I often hear – or read in the case of e-mail – about hot-button issues that have raised the ire of residents looking for answers on why we vote the way we do, or who is responsible for what decision.
I will say it’s much rarer to get calls thanking us for our vote, but it does happen. More often than not a phone call starts with a rather charged and emotional opening statement … “I can’t believe YOU people voted for this nonsense”…or “why are YOU building this gas station right next to MY house.”
After a brief explanation, a calm usually comes over the call (not always, but most of the time) and a relatively pleasant two-way conversation takes place. At its best, that’s how it should work.
Let’s be honest. Any elected official should be happy whenever a constituent takes the time to make the call or send an e-mail. It’s a chance to make a one-to-one connection with a citizen, much more valuable than a campaign flyer or a quick, 10-second front-porch greeting during a political campaign. It’s also an opportunity to gauge public support, check the temperature of the citizenry, and to get a general feel for how your city, state, or country is doing.
In our current climate of highly-charged “right” vs. “left” politics, I often get calls beyond the scope of my job as an alderman, questions relating to national health care, state government, mass transit, etc.
While some of these issues can touch local politics, often the residents are just looking for an outlet for their frustrations, or answers to questions they have about the bigger issues that they feel aren’t being addressed by their state or national elected representatives.
It could be they feel more comfortable talking to a locally-elected official than a “politician” who has thousands or even millions of constituents, and may not have a direct line of communication with individual citizens. It may be a reflection of state and national governments-and their endless number of faceless departments and agencies-that have pointed the arrow away from the top of the responsibility ladder, and back towards local government.
We don’t have to look any farther than the recent Hoan Bridge repair vs. demolition debate to see how this can play out. Local elected officials like State Rep. Mark Honadel (R-South Milwaukee) and County Supervisor Pat Jursik taking the leadership role on the issue because of a State Department (Transportation in this case) unwilling or unable to listen to and respond to its citizens in a timely, open, and honest conversation about an issue decided at the state level, but impacting all of us locally.
All leaders, at the local, state or national levels, elected or appointed, have a duty to listen to, respond to, and to engage the citizens at all times, not when its politically convenient, or because its easier to point the finger (middle or otherwise) in somebody else’s direction.
Steve Scaffidi is the alderman representing the 3rd District in of Oak Creek.