A few years ago, Pew Research Center found only 48 percent of American adults directly take part in civic groups or activities. Less than 40 percent of those surveyed reported recent contacts with a government official or participation in a public forum.
These depressing statistics speak volumes about Americans’ growing civic disengagement, as well as overall citizen mistrust of government.
Jackson County is no exception to the rule.
I’ll give you an example: Through the years, elections in both Forest Hills and Webster occasionally have been decided through board appointments or last minute write-in votes, because too few people were willing to run for office. I admit, issues in front of these boards are often mundane, with an untagged vehicle in someone’s yard about as exciting as it got at one recent municipal meeting. But, this is the stuff of real life. You can be certain the person with the untagged vehicle was interested, and most likely, so were his neighbors.
There’s a commendable, even wise, effort on the part of Jackson County government to reverse these trends toward an increasingly disengaged electorate.
Next week, 25 people are expected to participate in the inaugural Jackson County Citizens Academy, an eight-week course designed to provide residents with a look inside local government.
County officials plan to offer the academy twice each year. This would allow 50 people annually to take part in weekly two- to three-hour evening sessions on how Jackson County government functions.
There are three main goals, according to local officials: to provide knowledge about how county government operates; to give people information about opportunities for involvement; and to provide face-to-face interaction among participants, county employees and other civic-minded residents.
The first class, on Sept. 14, includes an introduction to county government and an overview of the program. In the sessions to follow, participants are scheduled to visit the Sheriff’s Office, Register of Deeds, Emergency Management, Health Department, Permitting and Code Enforcement, Cullowhee Recreation complex and more. During these stops, department heads will provide participants with overviews of the types of services they and their employees provide.
“Local government touches people on a daily basis. This is nothing but educating people about local government itself,” County Manager Don Adams told commissioners in July.
In other words, politics get parked at the door.
On the other side of the equation, we believe the Jackson County Citizens Academy might help our local leaders and county employees, too, by connecting them to real people with real-people concerns.
Once done, perhaps the graduates will act as ambassadors, helping to explain government processes to others in the community and actively encouraging others to get involved.
It is critical we all do our part, and local officials are making a commendable effort to bridge the gap between government and the people it serves. Without informed conversations, civic engagement and deliberative democracy, our American way of life cannot, will not, be sustained.
Ellison is editor of The Sylva Herald.