2017-09-14 / Opinion


Make Sure Your Voice is Heard

One great thing about living in this country is our right to participate in the decision-making process, mainly through casting our votes. Unfortunately, an embarrassingly low percentage of voters take advantage of this right.

A less arbitrary opportunity is through jury duty. While many people find ways to skirt their responsibility, it is our obligation and a fundamental component to what makes us a democracy.

One of the best ways to watch democracy in action is to attend a public meeting or commission hearing. City and town councils meet monthly, sometimes even twice a month. Public participation at these meetings is sparse, unless there is an agenda item or a cause that personally impacts an individual. Communities on Aquidneck Island and in Jamestown allow for public comment at the beginning of their meetings. Obviously, comments should be civil, polite and thoughtful, and not used to embarrass or slander anyone.

Perhaps the best example of the public process are the board and commission meetings. We have the Historic District Commission, the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals. People sitting on these boards and commissions are uncompensated volunteers. Many are members because of a particular interest or expertise. It is not an exact science as to how prepared everyone is, but it should be acknowledged that members sacrifice their time to contribute to the democratic process.

People have an opportunity to speak at these board and commission meetings. Speakers are usually "for" or "against" a particular petition, which often pits neighbor against neighbor. Still, it is a democratic process, and informed, well-reasoned, articulate points of view should be heard, and conventions should be followed.

For example, if you are going to address a request or petition, make sure you are speaking to the appropriate board or commission. Each has a defined authority. Also, objecting for the sake of it will get you nowhere. Ordinances determine what is allowed in terms of new buildings, alterations and use. Any deviation or relief requires a public process. If you object to an existing zoning ordinance or allowable use, that objection should be raised at a city or town council meeting.

But above all, when you feel that change is warranted, be sure to take advantage of your right to speak. Don’t take for granted the opportunity to be part of the democratic process.

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