Commentators continue to air theories about why so many Americans are "turned off" by politics and government. Recently, the public safety committee of the Indianapolis City-County Council gave a vivid demonstration of how government can earn…
Commentators continue to air theories about why so many Americans are "turned off" by politics and government. Recently, the public safety committee of the Indianapolis City-County Council gave a vivid demonstration of how government can earn the contempt of those it is supposed to serve.
The purpose of the meeting was to hear testimony on an ordinance to reform IPD’s civilian review process. The ordinance represented a year’s work by thirty-four private citizens appointed by the Mayor under the auspices of the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee. It had bipartisan support and was jointly introduced by the majority and minority leaders of the Council. It was then referred to the Public Safety committee, which scheduled a public hearing for 4:00 p.m. the day before Thanksgiving. Despite the time, the hearing room was packed with citizens who had rearranged their schedules in order to testify for or against various aspects of the proposal.
They were not to have that opportunity. The chairman of the committee, Bill Dowden, announced that he had discarded the carefully crafted proposal produced by citizens during hundreds of hours of research and deliberation. Instead, "over the weekend" he had prepared a dramatically amended version which he was substituting. His would now be the ordinance considered by the committee and Council. When stunned murmers arose from the crowd, Councillor Dowden added insult to injury by stating that the hour for the public hearing–which he himself had set–was inconvenient. "We have family obligations," he said. "We can’t stay here and hear all of you." When a member of the audience objected that he and many others had gone to considerable trouble to rearrange their schedules, Dowden accused him of being "mean spirited."
Councillors Dowden and Curry, who together ran the meeting, had every right to propose changes to the ordinance that was originally submitted. They have a positive duty to speak their minds, to argue for different policies, and ultimately to vote as they see fit. But as elected officials, they also have a duty to the public that elected them.
They have a duty to address issues honestly, rather than avoiding them through parliamentary game playing.
They have a duty to respect representations made to citizens who worked diligently and in good faith on a proposal they had been promised would get a fair hearing.
They have an obligation to hear testimony from citizens who appear at a hearing they have scheduled.
In a democratic society, laws are supposed to be passed after thorough and robust public debate. Those who disagree with a final legislative decision can console themselves that at least the process was fair, that they had their opportunity to be heard. That is the American trade-off: if the process is fair, the losers agree to abide by the rules set by the winners. It is ironic that public officials who loudly support law and order don’t seem to understand how their own actions undermine respect for the rule of law.