Negotiations without the input of commissioners, meetings and district talks at times the public is unlikely to attend and using millage funds in ways voters didn’t approve are examples of how local taxpayers are losing a place at the table.
Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. The end doesn’t justify the means. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. Along with something about not jumping off a bridge, these three well-known maxims were drummed into us before we turned 6. Oh, the words may have been at times a bit more age appropriate, but the principles didn’t change. They were all things we learned in kindergarten. Sometimes earlier. Good, solid, fundamental concepts, like play fair, don’t take things that aren’t yours and warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. We paid attention. Especially to that last one. There’s nothing better than cookies and milk to help smooth out the rough patches and bring people together.
This is not the first time we’ve quoted author Robert Fulghum’s words of wisdom in our column — he turns 80 on Sunday, by the way — and it probably won’t be the last. Essential truths bear repeating, particularly when government leaders so frequently act in ways that defy logic. Have they forgotten these simple precepts that ought to be second nature by now? Or are they simply ignoring them? Whenever we can’t decide between the two, we turn to the next most likely hypothesis. Must be something in the water.
Whatever is responsible for making the illogical commonplace in both Lansing and Washington seems to have flowed into Lenawee County, where negotiations on city property deals now occur without commissioners’ advance knowledge, state lawmakers routinely schedule coffees and in-district office hours during times most people are at work and township boards contemplate significant tax changes during rare morning meetings. Despite elected officials’ calls for openness and transparency, their actions suggest a far greater interest in keeping the public in the dark — and preventing them from making tax-related decisions.
Not long ago, Madison Township voters approved a special levy for additional police department personnel. Normally, voters would decide every few years whether that millage should be renewed. But that could soon be off the table. Township trustees — three months after deciding to place the police renewal proposal on the fall ballot — are now considering cancelling the vote, re-classifying the earmarked millage as general fund money, and levying an additional mill for operations. All of that without voter approval. State law calls it legal. We call it bait and switch.
Maybe the idea is nothing more than a trial balloon. Or, perhaps, it’s due to lack of government experience; four of the trustees have been on the board less than six months. But revenue shortfalls and township indebtedness notwithstanding, cutting the public out of the process is no way to curry favor with an electorate whose frustration level is already at the breaking point.
Perhaps nowhere is that better documented than in a report issued three months ago. It reveals Michigan residents have little to no confidence in state government’s ability to carry out any of its major functions or services — including fostering economic growth, education oversight, protecting public health and the environment, and providing services for low-income residents. More than 5,000 people participated in the nearly year-long study for the non-profit Center for Michigan think tank, pouring out pent-up frustrations at 125 town hall-style meetings and in telephone poll responses.
Pollster Peter Pratt of Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants told the Center the perception of government unresponsiveness has led to such high levels of discouragement he worries people will soon see little value in voting. The greater the lack of engagement, he warned, the better chance extremism will flourish. His admonition, while directed at state lawmakers and bureaucrats, is equally applicable to those at the local level. We sympathize with city, village, township and county government officials who struggle daily with the challenges created by state or federal policy changes and broken promises. However, that does not give them license to deny voters their say on local millage rates. Government is most effective when the relationship between those who are elected and the people they serve is built on a solid foundation of trust and respect. Doing things the right way may be the road less traveled, but it is the higher value. What state statute allows is irrelevant. The Madison Township board owes their more than 4,800 voters the final word on any millage changes. It is a moral obligation.
We could say more, but the oven timer just went off. That can mean only one thing. Warm cookies and a tall, cold glass of milk! Anyone up for some trust-building?