Public opinion sets bounds to every government, and is the real sovereign in every free one – James Madison Public Opinion, December 19, 1791
While the Framers of the Constitution of the United States greatly restricted the powers of the Federal Government, they allowed for States and Local governments to have very broad, sweeping reign of their local jurisdictions. This is made possible because of the more powerful effects that Public opinion has at these levels. Citizens have far more sway over their local governments than they do their Federal governments. It’s for this reason that Thomas Jefferson famously said, “the government closest to the people serves the people best.”
At the local level, citizens live in the same community as their representatives. They shop at that same businesses, drive on the same roads, attend the same churches, and share in the same local issues. They are far more subject to their own decisions as they bear the results of them. For this same reason, at the local level, citizens have more say over the issues that are important to them, and see the results of those issues much more quickly.
Of course, for any of the above to be true, two things need to happen. One, the citizens need to be involved. They need to show up to their local Council Meetings. They need to voice their opinions. They need to stay informed on what their local government is actually doing, and they need to hold that government accountable. The second thing is that the local government needs to actually represent their citizens. In the City of Madison, we are woefully lacking on both fronts. We have a local Government run a muck with little to no oversight from the community. The citizens of Madison do not know who their Council Members are, what they are supposed to do, what they are doing, or even when they meet. Meanwhile, the local Government is happy to allow that to be the status quo. They have little to no effort to reach out and communicate to their constituents. When asked where I can go online to see information he puts out, the President of the Madison City Council, my own representative, told me that there is no such place. That he hates social media. If people want to know what he is doing, they need to show up at his office. This, in the time of Covid.
My council member said that it was decided that our Government would adopt a “One Voice” policy, that voice being the Mayor, in which no Council Members are to put out statements about the work going on in our Government, and to allow the Mayor’s office to manage the flow of information. Now, I understand the stated reasoning behind this, and it makes sense on the surface. Previous administrations had a real issues with conflicting information coming out from the various council members, and this lead to a lot of confusion on behalf of the local media and the public. This was often times due to a misunderstanding by a Council Member or two. However, the resolution to this was top down from the Mayor’s office, rather than bottom up, from the public. This flies in the face of the very concept of Representative Government.
At the local level, it’s our Council Members that are our representatives at the seat of the City leadership. Not the Mayor. The Mayor is the Executive of the City. Our voice comes to the Mayor’s office from the Council Members. Absent our relationship with our Council Members there is no public voice. This leaves the Mayor free to run things how he wants to with no checks or balances. He’s King of Madison, Lord Finley the Great. As a result, Lord Finley has ensured that his voice, and only his voice is what the citizens hear. We are not to hear what our Council Member is working on, what their priorities are. We are not to hear from our Council Member information that pertains to our district. What businesses are coming in, what plans are in development to manage roads and traffic. What things are impacting our home values, and so on. Some Council Members, to include my own, the very President of the Council itself, are all too happy to let this be. He expressed to me in a recent phone call that he has no intention to be a voice of feedback to the community. We should just take it up with the Mayor. What is happening on the Planning Commision? My Council Member has no idea. No clue what businesses are coming to his district. Does he bother to attend Planning Commision meetings to advocate for us? Not a chance. Would we know? Not a chance. He, and others, see the job not as a representative position, but more of a managerial position.
THIS. IS. OUR. FAULT.
Madison City Council Meetings are inaccessible by design. We are one of the only Cities in Alabama that does not have a running video archive of the Council Meetings. Citizens cannot go and look at a meeting that happened 6 months ago. We are ill informed. Worse, the Council Meetings, in the time of Covid, are basically off limits to disabled citizens, or citizens with underlying health conditions that make the trek to City Hall too dangerous to risk. We are told to just watch it on Channel 42. When asked why we cannot have YouTube WITH COMMENTS enabled, or Zoom, or Facebook Live enabled, so that these citizens can actually participate and “step up to the podium” virtually, they are chastised, and told that Channel 42 is the only option. When a disabled citizen expressed that Channel 42 doesn’t allow for her to participate so it’s not good enough, “I cannot believe that you would want to leave out a segment of Madison’s population” was a retort given by the Council President to her, again, an actual disabled person, when challenged on the lack of access these citizens have. Now, the broader context of that statement was that he had expressed that the IT department could not broadcast both to Channel 42 and to Zoom, or social media simultaneously. So, Channel 42 was chosen as that reaches the larger community and includes those without such things as mobile devices, and internet service. Yet, when tested, the Madison City YouTube channel during a live broadcast, was able to get 281 viewers, compared to the normal 2 that show up to meetings. Facebook easily triples that on average. Of course, part way through, they disabled comments on YouTube, and refuse to utilize Facebook Live. I find it interesting that the ONLY solution that works for the Mayor and City Council is the one that has the least interaction from the public. And do we know how many people actually watch the Channel 42 City Council broadcasts? Nope! Maybe it’s 10,000, maybe it’s 7. We don’t know. But we do know that via Channel 42, we cannot step up to the podium. Maybe we can just call in, right!? I mean, that is sort of a work around. When presented as an option by a disabled member of the public, the City Council President incredulously asked, “Why would we do that!?”
To put this into perspective, Madison is one of the fastest growing cities in the Nation. It’s booming here. What is the growth due to? Tech. Huntsville has been named the Head Quarters for Space Force. ULA, the main competitor to Space X is based right in Decatur. Toyota and Mazda have built a new factory in Madison. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is here, and Redstone Arsenal is home to an Army Major Command. Which command, you ask!? The Army Materiel Command. That’s the main Research and Development branch of the Army. As a result, every single major tech company in the world has been placing down footprints in our area. From Raytheon, to Boeing, to Northrup Grumman, to Facebook, and Google. This area is a tech mecca, yet we cannot stream our City Council meetings to social media, while every other of the top 10 Cities in Alabama, can. Let that sink in, as they give us these excuses.
Madison, you have NO idea what your Mayor and your Council Members are doing. Most of you cannot even name your Council Member. Most of you don’t know what their actual job is. This is because our local government does everything they can to avoid having you be involved, and you are making little to no effort in actually getting involved.
Do you know what businesses are coming to your area? Is that a coffee shop being built in front of your subdivision, or a strip club? Is Google Fiber coming to your subdivision or are you stuck with AT&T or WOW? What exactly is being done with the money from that last tax hike we all voted for? Why hasn’t the exit for Midtown Madison been opened? Will it be? If it doesn’t what does that mean for our own taxes? What is impacting your house value? Will it rise, or will it tank?
You cannot possibly know the answers to any of these questions if you do not get involved. We need you to step up and demand more access to our local Government. Demand Zoom or social media interaction so that you can attend meetings. Demand video archives so that you can catch up on things you missed when life takes precedence over the scheduled meeting.
Madison City, both the leadership and the public, are my Jackass of the Week. Collectively, we’re failing each other. We can do better.
*** CORRECTIONS ***
1.) In this article, I originally stated that 281 viewers watched the Council Meeting live on YouTube. That is not accurate. Roughly 30ish viewers were live. The other 250 viewers have come since then. This does show an interest in people watching the meetings even when they cannot attend at the scheduled time, and demonstrates the value of a video archive.
2.) In this article, I originally stated that Facebook viewings would be triple the viewings on YouTube. That too, was not accurate. The City of Madison YouTube channel has 193 Subscribers (you should subscribe!). Meanwhile, the City of Madison Facebook page has 9,042 followers. If Mayor Finley and the Council really wants to embrace transparency and maximize reach to the community, they should seriously consider using YouTube as the archive, and stream to both YouTube and Facebook Live.