Time to get involved

Published 7:10 pm Thursday, January 14, 2010

The late Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., the Massachusetts Democrat who reigned as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives through the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations, was famous for having observed, “All politics is local.” The point was that decisions made by politicians at any level affect their constituents at home and can have repercussions all the way back up the political ladder. One thing O’Neill understood was that people react most strongly to those things that affect them most directly. The stronger the effects, the more pronounced the reaction back at home.

There’s an interesting phenomenon of politics, though. Despite the fact that local government actions almost always affect people more directly and measurably than just about anything the federal government can do, local politics and political actions are among the least-followed news all over the nation.

Unfortunately, Suffolk offers no exception to the phenomenon. Two public input sessions about the city’s budget this week attracted a grand total of seven individuals, three of whom were there in support of each other, to offer guidance to budget officials and city administrators. Even the most controversial of topics rarely brings more than a few dozen of Suffolk’s more than 80,000 people to City Hall for a council meeting.

And it’s not like the majority of those at home are keeping up with local government some other way. Judging from the results of a recent poll on this page, only 35 percent of this newspaper’s readers catch a City Council meeting in any of its forms — live, on cable or on the Internet. And newspaper readers are generally more civically engaged than their non-reading counterparts, so it’s likely that the overall percentage for all city residents is even lower.

Such poor participation in and oversight of local government — reflected even in election results, which often show a marked falling of interest between the presidential ticket and the School Board levels — increases the chances that local government will not serve its citizens. Even in the case of elected and appointed officials who have the desire to provide good service, a lack of community input into the process makes it hard for them to know just how best to serve their constituents.

Whether the issue is annual budgets, taxes, historical preservation, schools or any one of myriad other issues, your elected and appointed officials downtown need your input, and the city needs your engagement. There’s no time like the present to get involved.