Thursday, October 8, 2009

Reality Check: Civics or 'Survivor' -- Oct. 8, 2009 column


There’s reality TV and there’s reality.

Reality TV is Tom DeLay, the Republican former House majority leader, shaking his booty to “Wild Thing” on “Dancing with the Stars.”

Reality is the stress fractures in both feet that forced DeLay to quit dancing. Or reality may be that the Hammer got booted because ratings were dipping faster than his slides across the dance floor.

What’s next, America? Another season of living vicariously through reality TV’s housewives, fashion designers, top models and chefs with attitude?

How about something fresh, local and unscripted – a.k.a. reality?

You could watch real people face challenging situations before a panel of judges in your own hometown for free with no commercials. Anyone can watch local government in action.

I hear you, “Civics over `Survivor?’ No thanks.”

As heretical as it sounds, though, reality is more compelling than reality TV.

The “contestants” in local government proceedings aren’t singers or dancers; they’re neighbors fighting for or against change. The judges aren’t national celebrities; they’re also neighbors, elected or appointed officials with the power to make things happen.

Unlike on reality TV, the decisions of city councils, planning commissions and school boards affect the quality of local life.

To be sure, local government lacks the exotic locales, glitzy stages and dramatic costumes of reality TV shows. And yet, there’s suspense as officials make decisions that affect reality in jobs, education, business, the environment, safety and taxes.

I’m not suggesting that you tune into the local government cable channel and settle down with a bowl of popcorn. Most use fixed cameras that show little but talking heads. Instead check online for a calendar of public meetings and look at the agendas. Many localities also use social networking to connect with citizens.

Then, get off the couch and go to city hall – you do own it. Savor the atmosphere, people rolling their eyes, grumbling. On TV, you may not see that council chambers often are designed like churches – with pews for the citizens and officials seated on a raised platform at the front. What’s that all about?

The other night I was in a city hall in the Virginia suburbs of Washington when I saw a crowd gathering. As a newspaper reporter, I covered many a local government meeting, and crowds indicated the session wouldn’t be dull.

I slipped into the back of a planning commission meeting and watched a classic battle unfold. Should a 7-Eleven be allowed on the ground floor of an upscale condo building?

This is a typical, not-in-my-back-yard issue in cities and towns all over the country.

On one hand, the store would be a convenience for residents and would fill a vacant storefront. Like most 7-Elevens, though, the store would be open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It would sell alcohol until midnight. Many residents were not thanking heaven. They were worried about crime, noise, panhandlers and rowdiness.

The store’s lawyer said 7-Eleven had agreed to provide upscale signage, security cameras and, if needed, a workspace for police.

During public comments, a legally blind man said he now would worry about his safety. A woman with two small children said the store would destroy neighborhood peace. A man who had lived near a 7-Eleven previously said he had felt so unsafe there he’d carried a concealed handgun when he walked his dog at night.

But a fan of the 7-Eleven drew chuckles when she said she works late and sometimes likes food other than the healthy fare sold at the nearby Whole Foods.

A planning commissioner said not everybody is an early riser with small children and these others would appreciate a late snack. She scolded opponents for wrinkling their noses at 7-Eleven, calling them “snobbists.”

The commission approved the store 5 to 1. I joined the unhappy citizens as they crowded into an elevator to leave. Their comments seemed to make no difference to the commissioners, said the mother of two. She was still angry about the snob comment.

Maybe the store won’t be as bad as it seems, I said.

She shook her head. “We’re moving!”

It wasn’t “Survivor.” Civics is reality.

(c)2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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