Tom Clyde: Citizen involvement
August 22, 2014
I’ve watched the news from Ferguson, Missouri with a kind of sickening disappointment. I guess living here in our little patch of paradise, I had believed that we were beyond that now; that things were better. But here we are, with what appears to be an unjustified shooting (six shots, two to the head) of a black teenager by a white cop. Brown may have stolen some cigars from a convenience store, but the cop involved in the shooting didn’t know that, according to the local police chief. It looks like Brown was stopped for jaywalking. The cop’s version of the story has not been made public, which is, of course, a big part of the problem. There may be facts that tip the balance. But not six fatal shots’ worth.
The community has justifiably erupted in protests. I’m frankly impressed by the restraint most have shown. The initial police response was about as un-enlightened as it could get. The body of Mike Brown laid in the street in a pool of blood for several hours, uncovered, while they did the initial investigation. SWAT teams equipped with the latest military hardware from Iraq responded to the demonstration of public outrage in the streets. It’s hard to imagine how the initial response could have been worse. The local elected officials have vanished, and the governor seemed annoyed that this had been dumped in his lap.
The complaints are real. In a town that is two-thirds black, the police department is 90 percent white. The town council has only one black member. Arrest records show a pattern of disproportionate traffic enforcement against black residents, which suggests cops using any possible excuse to pull them over, just because. I really thought we were beyond that, but what do I know, living here. Park City is a very diverse community. We have wealthy white Protestants from all 50 states.
Part of what makes the mess in Ferguson so disappointing to me is that a lot of it seems self-imposed. The rate of participation in local elections by black residents is insignificant. Only five or six percent of them vote. There are no silver bullets, but if you live in Ferguson are and upset that the predominantly black community has an overwhelmingly white city government and police department, you can change that. Show up and vote. Instead of singing "We Shall Overcome" in the streets, they need to be singing "We Shall Show up in November and Vote Your Bigoted Asses Out of Office." And then do it.
That won’t bring Michael Brown back, or offer much comfort to his parents. But showing up at the polls, a quiet riot in the voting booth, would make a huge difference.
Speaking of community involvement, the Park City Council is trying to find ways to get more citizen involvement in local affairs. Nobody goes to budget hearings, few people show up at planning commission meetings. While the council members all get an earful at the grocery store or when trapped on a chairlift, there really isn’t a lot of direct participation in local government.
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Partly that’s because there are other things to do. Thirty years ago, when I worked at City Hall, Council meetings were a spectator sport. People came just to watch us floundering away in the tsunami of difficult issues, all hitting at once, with no time for careful analysis. It worked on a sitcom schedule, with the impossible situation presented, the conflict exposed, and the plot nicely resolved all within a half hour before adjourning to the Alamo.
If the Council really wants to get people engaged in local decisions again, I’d suggest they go back to that kind of pacing. The current framework makes it impossible for an average citizen to follow an issue. Decisions take forever. The Sweeney project is now 30 years in the "pending" file. The Bonanza Park planning just gets more baroque as time goes by, with no real decisions being made. The Kimball Art Center continues to present designs that are obnoxious to the character of the historic district, but we’re three years into that one without anybody saying "no."
If you want public engagement in the process, the process has to have an end. Make a decision. Ordinary citizens have lives, and may want to follow an issue, but really can’t devote 30 years to following the Sweeney project. I’m certain that whatever happens with Bonanza Park, the resulting traffic and blocked views won’t improve the value of a condo I have in the neighborhood. Years from now, when a decision is made, I probably won’t like it. But spending the time to attend 30 or 40 meetings, well, it’s just too much.
But at least we don’t have tanks rolling down Main Street, tear gassing residents singing "We Shall Have Form-Based Zoning in Bonanza Park." Whatever that means.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.