Commentary: Good government isn’t easy. It’s up to all of us to make it work

By Paul Rozycki

When Flint School Board President Danielle Greene [allegedly] assaulted board Treasurer Laura McIntyre during a Flint Community School Board meeting last March, the school board accomplished something that few thought humanly possible. If even for a short time, they replaced the Flint City Council as the most dysfunctional government in the county.

That’s no small accomplishment.

FCS Administration building. (Photo by Tom Travis)

Not to be outdone in the race for dysfunctional government, Genesee County recently saw County Clerk John Gleason arrested, and Flint Township election clerk Kathy Funk criminally charged with election fraud. 

It’s easy to shake our heads and say “there they go again,” or “it’s just politics,”  as we learn of the latest antics of the City Council, the Flint School Board, or Genesee County officeholders.  But we have a right to expect more from our elected officials. The damage done by incompetent and chaotic government goes well beyond the boundaries of Flint and Genesee County, and impacts more than just our local tax bill, school classrooms, garbage pickup, or road repair.  

Genesee County District Court offices at the McCree building downtown Flint. (Photo by Tom Travis)

As Genesee County and the City of Flint face a declining tax base, shrinking population, and a public school system that is floundering, we need a competent, effective government more than ever.

Not all of the problems we face are the result of dysfunctional government, but a dysfunctional government makes any solution much more difficult.

It’s hard to convince a prospective business to locate in Flint when they confront eight- or ten-hour council meetings that do little but bicker, and council members are led out in handcuffs or leave early from exhaustion.

City Council chamber on the third floor of City Hall. (EVM file photo)

It’s difficult to convince parents that Flint Community Schools are the best place for their children when board members are arrested for assaulting each other as the aging school buildings crumble around them.

How did we get here?

While the Flint City Council and the Flint School Board may be prime examples of dysfunctional government, they are hardly alone. Both the national and state governments share the same problems.

Even as we promote ourselves as a beacon of democracy, as a nation we have a long-standing distrust of government. It was Mark Twain, in the 1880s, who said, “Suppose you are an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.” In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan said “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”

Those attitudes may create their own reality where those in government, all too often, live up to, or down to, expectations. They may discourage those with the most ability from getting involved.

Declining trust

Over the decades trust in government has declined dramatically. In 1964 more than 77 percent of the American public said they would “trust the government to do the right thing always or most of the time.” By 2022 only 20 percent would agree with that statement. It hasn’t been above 50 percent since the Watergate scandal in 1972.

In Flint, our recent history has done little boost our trust in government. The combination of financial crisis, a series of emergency managers, and the Flint water crisis have led many to doubt the ability of governments to solve major problems.

As a result, it’s not uncommon to have an election turnout of 20 percent of the voters or less. Those who don’t vote are the real majority in most elections. In the end it’s our responsibility to elect those who can govern effectively. The old Pogo quote rings true, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” 

In the last few weeks, the Jan. 6 committee has uncovered more facts about the planned insurrection following the 2020 election. We’ve heard of potential plans to overturn an election, invoke martial law, and murder a vice-president, and learned that democracy can be a very fragile thing.

A dysfunctional or chaotic government that can’t deliver on the most basic promises to its citizens makes that democracy even more fragile. That inability of government effectively respond to public needs may have laid the groundwork for Trump, his followers, and his conspiracy theories. 

What can we do?

It’s up to us, as citizens and voters, to become informed, and elect those who can effectively deliver what we expect from government. The media needs to be an honest watchdog over government activity.

Flint City Hall. (Photo by Tom Travis)

We need to realize that the best government isn’t always the most exciting government. The loudest voices are not always the wisest. The biggest egos may not be the best leaders. It’s probably a lot more entertaining to see a story about Marjorie Taylor Greene babbling on about Jewish space lasers, or Eric Mays being led out of a council meeting in handcuffs, than to sit through a subcommittee meeting on capital gains tax policy, a new zoning law, or a line-by-line review of Flint’s city budget. But those are more significant. 

Turn out to vote

One of the greatest enemies of good government is apathy. Among democratic nations the United States ranks fairly low on voter turnout. In Flint, the numbers are even more discouraging. For the upcoming August 2nd primary we’ll be lucky to have a 20 percent turnout.

Campaign signs plea for voters outside Ward 7 polling station. (Photo by Paul Rozycki)

We will be voting on candidates for governor, the U.S. House, the state House, the state Senate, Flint mayor, the Genesee County Commission, several township offices, a judicial election, as well as two county-wide millage renewals. For many offices the primary will be the real election. 

Learn about the candidates

Most people are not political junkies who watch all the news programs and read up on all the candidates and issues, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That’s understandable. People have lives to live beyond the ballot box, and all too many voters, if they turn out at all, will find a free hour on election day, go to the polls, and quickly mark the ballot for their favorite party, or some name they recognize from last night’s 30-second commercial, or a yard sign they saw on the way to the polls. 

Michigan’s new election procedures can change that. With Michigan’s vote by mail or absentee ballot it is easier for voters to get the ballot early, and learn about the candidates and issues.

Take the time to get your ballot early and learn about the candidates and the proposals. In particular take the time to review the real qualifications the candidates bring to the position they seek. 

Most candidates have websites, and groups such as the League of Women Voters usually post responses from the candidates on the major issues. The Tom Sumner Program (WFOV, 92.1) has interviews with many of the candidates and they are available on his website. Many interest groups also publish candidate interviews and endorsements,.

Important questions to ask

Do the candidates understand how their level of government works and how it is funded? Are they willing to learn about the challenges facing the city, county or school district? And perhaps most importantly do they have the personal ability to work with others in a meaningful way? Democracy can be a frustrating and messy process, and it may involve conflict, but compromise is the main currency of any democratic body. In the end, any governing body must produce results.

There is some good news

The good news is that, for all the criticism directed at the Flint City Council, the Flint Community School Board, and Genesee County officials, there are individuals in each of those bodies who understand the issues, are committed to work with others, and produce positive results. They deserve our thanks for putting up with conflict, chaos, and enduring endless meetings. They need all the support they can get from their voters and constituents.  

Get involved

We need to encourage others who are willing to work together to get involved and run for office. As local governments become more dysfunctional, those with ability are discouraged from running and getting involved with the conflict they see every day. A government that shows it can genuinely work together to solve problems can change that. A good government can bring out the best of those who are often lost in the chaos of a dysfunctional governing body. 

A good government and a functioning democracy isn’t easy. It takes the work and effort of all citizens. It’s up to us to make sure it does work.

Author: Tom Travis

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