Where Democracy Begins

by Mayor Jim Ardis, City of Peoria

This issue of iBi arrives just a few days before the April 9th general election for local offices. In many ways, this election is more important than ever. There are several reasons for this. First, the record low turnout for the February 26th primary sends a disappointing—and, I hope, erroneous—message to the community at large. Secondly, at a time of fragmentation at the national and state levels, we need the very best governance—transparent, stable, affordable and accessible—at the local level. And thirdly, citizens have a direct and daily impact on the course of local government. Democracy begins when you exercise your right to vote for local elected offices.

The low turnout for the February primary was due mostly to hazardous weather conditions, but also to the fact that in Peoria, just two of our five council districts’ races required this initial selection of two finalists. Even so, a turnout of less than five percent of nearly 27,000 eligible voters is not good. It sends a signal that people either don’t care or feel their vote doesn’t make a difference.

But consider that in our fifth council district, there was a tie. Yes, one more voter could have made a difference in terms of who came out on top. I am convinced that the quality of our locally elected bodies is directly related to the commitment, experience, knowledge and leadership of those we elect. If an unsettlingly small number of voters select the “quality” of our City Council, for example, then the majority who do not vote undermine their own ability to direct the course of government. I know in my heart that most Peorians care about the quality and livability of our city. The time-honored way to demonstrate this is to vote.

Closely related to the above is the fact that, at this time in our history, national and state political and governance issues can be overwhelming for the individual at times. Constant disagreements and debates over budgets, sources of revenue, deficits and borrowing at unprecedented levels, as well as regulatory overreach, constitutional challenges and a general lack of economic certainty undermine confidence in the system. However, at the local level—in the City of Peoria—we have a balanced budget, open and accessible public meetings, and a commitment to live within our means and not further strain an already substantial property tax. In addition, there is political and administrative stability. People know where, indeed, the buck stops. Council members are our neighbors and friends. Our employees provide essential public services 24/7. Our services, costs and employees provide a stable framework for social activity, business growth and development, and a general environment focused on quality, relationships and professionalism.

I do not think it is old-fashioned to still believe that democracy—government by the people and for the people—begins in our own neighborhoods and communities when we select officials to protect and enhance the public trust. This is not to suggest that what our federal and state governments do is not important. After all, we in Peoria cannot provide for the common national defense or administer a statewide driver registration system. But we can ensure essential public services like fire and police protection, street maintenance and improvement, sensible rules for development, growth, building and neighborhood improvements, accurate and transparent financial management, and City Council proceedings that are truly “on the record.”

If we as citizens don’t exercise our privileges of local representative democracy, then we seriously limit our credibility to complain, change and direct the course of our government. If we want to protect our local right of governance, we need to demonstrate at the polls that we do indeed care and can manage our own affairs.

The bottom line is that voting for local officials is a right we simply must exercise if we do not want someone else to determine how we “run” our city. The April 9th general election is a big deal, as the five district council members we select will join the five at-large members to oversee a budget of nearly $190 million, help provide the policy framework for our city manager to provide leadership to 650 employees, determine the order of development priorities, and remain focused on good government—a transparent, accessible, affordable and stable government.

Preserving our democratic values and representative government begins April 9th. Educate yourself on the candidates in your district, and be sure to vote! iBi


Source URL: https://www.peoriamagazines.com/ibi/2013/apr/where-democracy-begins