Democracy in Action: It’s Not Sexy

Democracy in Action: It’s Not Sexy

Shane BarnhillTuesday,1 March 2016

Last week, I had the opportunity to take my 12-year-old son to a city council meeting. We were there to show support for his school, BASIS Scottsdale, which was asking the Scottsdale City Council to nullify easement restrictions at the proposed site for a new campus. Hundreds of other students, parents and supporters of BASIS also showed up to watch the school square off against a neighborhood opposition group that was seeking to block the easement abandonments, and ultimately, construction of the new campus.

While you might not expect a discussion about traffic flow models, parking spaces and easements to draw a huge crowd, the council meeting marked the culmination of months of emotionally-charged arguments that had played out in both local and national media outlets. Opponents of the new campus claimed that increased traffic from the school would jeopardize the neighborhood’s safety, and they hired attorneys and traffic analysts to support their case. In turn, BASIS Scottsdale hired a team of experts, made several revisions to their land development plan, and touted the value of having the nation’s #2 ranked non-private high school in the community. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey even weighed in on the high-profile debate, voicing his support for the school.

Consequently, when the Scottsdale City Council convened on February 23, many of the attendees who packed into city hall — especially students — had undoubtedly come expecting a thrilling, high-energy event.

But instead, they learned a valuable lesson.

The boisterous crowd — both proponents and opponents showed up wearing special t-shirts and stickers — settled down almost immediately. Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane kicked off the council meeting by warning attendees not to cheer or boo over the course of the evening. Lane then announced that a handful of items on the meeting agenda would be moved forward, thus pushing the BASIS Scottsdale discussion — already item number 23 on the planned agenda — even further back into the evening. Consequently, before the big battle for their school, students had to sit through hours of mundane, detailed conversations about conditional use permits, intersection improvements, liquor license applications, rezoning requests, financial reports and public comments.

Finally, the council took up BASIS Scottsdale’s request, listened to comments from both sides, and then approved the easement abandonment by a vote of 6-1. But by this time, over four hours had passed since the meeting was called to order, and the jubilation of the student body was partially tempered by the long process.

Exhausted students and parents filed out of Scottsdale City Hall, shook hands, and then got in their cars to drive home.

As we pulled out of the parking lot, I asked my son what he learned from watching democracy in action. “Government can be really boring,” he replied. And therein lies the lesson.

Real government is hard, tedious work. Soundbites, memes and headlines may get all of the attention in politics, especially at the national level, but most of the day-to-day tasks in a representative democracy are anything but glamorous. Elected officials spend their time studying complex issues, evaluating proposals, reviewing financial projections, meeting with constituents, and — as the Scottsdale City Council did on February 23 — mediating disputes between parties with sharply differing perspectives. Instagram videos (like mine, below), snarky tweets and six-second Vines are great for capturing bursts of euphoria and fleeting moments, but they don’t do justice to the slog of real democracy. The BASIS Scottsdale community showed up to the city council meeting to ask local leaders to support education, but they ended up getting an education in the process. And for that reason, I’m grateful to have shared in the experience with my son.

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Image Credit: Dru Bloomfield on Flickr

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