Will The Mayor of Ann Arbor Please Stand Up?

November 12, 2011

Political action

The mayor of Ann Arbor is John Hieftje, but I didn’t know that; did you? I haven’t heard the name before, nor have I heard of the city council’s actions, or even of the state senate! How can this be? As a citizen of a democracy I am obligated to keep myself informed of goings-on so that I might test and refine my opinions and carefully vote for people who have declared and demonstrated their conviction of principles in agreement with my own. Why aren’t I doing that, if I know I should?

As might not be surprising, I think the Internet has a lot to do with it. As things become more interconnected, redundancy has fallen away from news media as local papers languish, to have their jobs cut and anything other than local reporting filling in by the Associated Press. (I speak here of the Lansing State Journal.) There may have been a time when one could learn of local, state, national, and global affairs from the town newspaper, but I sure as hell don’t remember it. Besides, who has time to focus on local things when national politics are so much louder? It occurs to me that perhaps we’re more affected by local government than we think. Every time we buy something at a store, we are subject to sales tax as determined by state government. Our parking tickets, smoking policy (nicotine or otherwise), and road conditions all are subject to state or local law, not federal. However, by making national affairs so easy to keep up with, the Internet has made local affairs seem irrelevant, when clearly they are not. I think it’s fair to say that I feel more like a member of the national community than the local one. As I understand Locke and Russoe’s writings, citizens make great advantage – either for themselves or their community – by participating in their own governance. It seems here that maybe many people are choosing not to. Which community is more important to contribute to?

I assume that many of my peers aren’t participating in local affairs, either. The portion of the population the government represents, then, does not include us. Is it too late? Perhaps our lack of participation led to a lack of response and accountability from government. Take, for instance, the reply I received from my senator:

Dear Steve,

Thank you for contacting me about broadband Internet expansion and the issue of network neutrality.

As you may know, on December 21, 2010 the Federal Communications Commission approved a compromise that would create different rules for land-line and wireless Internet The rules would prevent land-line providers from blocking access to sites and applications, but would allow wireless companies some flexibility in the services they provide. I will continue to monitor the actions of the Federal Communications Commission on this issue.

The Internet has been a catalyst for free expression, innovation and economic opportunity that has benefited countless Americans. Should legislation about this issue come before me for a vote, I will be sure to keep your views in mind.

Thank you again for contacting me. Please feel free to do so again if I can ever be of assistance to you and your family.


Debbie Stabenow

United States Senator

It strikes me as vague and noncommittal. The specific views I expressed were not referenced, just the general topic of my email. With fewer people fully participating in their own government, I think that – as this letter demonstrates – the government is becoming less accountable. Here I don’t mean that accountability is doing what I’m in favor of, but Senator Stabenow should have mentioned her own thoughts on the matter so I know what to expect and what my further actions could be. I feel like with this letter my participation in government has been snubbed. Similarly, the responses to petitions on the White House’s “We The People” site seem either condescending and politically safe. Perhaps it’s less that people don’t want to participate, and more that the government has realized that these kinds of responses are convenient for discouraging boat-rocking. Does the government have an obligation to be accesible to its citizens? I’d sure like to be able to subscribe to a mailing list that tells me when and where elections are held, and for what positions! Keeping an eye on political lawn signs is not enough. What can we do to reclaim the representation in this democracy?



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4 Comments on “Will The Mayor of Ann Arbor Please Stand Up?”

  1. jordanwylie Says:

    I have lived in Ann Arbor for majority of my life and was surprised to realize that I did not know who the mayor of Ann Arbor was either! I completely agree with you that our government is not very accessible. I believe that majority of letters we receive from our congressmen and women and state representatives are just cookie-cutter letters that their assistance and interns fill out and send back to us. I doubt many of the letters even reach the desk of our elected officials.

    I don’t believe this disconnect is what our founding fathers had in mind when constructing our government. President Lincoln even told the public that we should have a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Each member of the House of Representatives represents a congressional district of their state, which is on average 600,000 people.

    That is not a good ratio. No wonder, the letter you received from Debbie Stabenow was so impersonal. I think the government does have an obligation to be accessible to the people and with each representative representing 600,000 people, it is impossible for them to be accessible! I think one of the only ways we can get more attention from our representatives would be to have more representatives so each one has fewer people. With a smaller ratio you might be able to get a letter back that has actual emotion.

  2. maryblee Says:

    It is clear, and has always been, that local politics have taken a back seat to national politics. Even before the internet took over news coverage turnout at the polls was remarkably higher when national offices were on the ballot. And judging by the student turnout at polls last week (single digits), local elections are still often forgotten.

    Steve expresses a desire to have all this information sent to him so he can more actively participate in local politics but this information IS already sent to him. All he has to do is pick up a copy of The Daily, which is available in almost every university building, including residence halls. It is hard for me to imagine that he doesn’t walk by a free newspaper stand at least once a week, certainly often enough to keep him informed of general local issues. If even this is more effort than Steve feels should be put into local politics, he can get his news emailed to him. Many campus organizations send out regular politics updates via email, including MSA and College Democrats and Republicans.

    He also address a seeming apathy on behalf of the government, as indicated by the Debbie Stabenow letter. He immediately condemns Senator Stabenow instead of considering that broadband internet expansion isn’t her biggest concern right now, and probably will never be while issues like job creation and portions of the Clean Air Act are on the table.

    The previous commenter quickly leaps to the conclusion that we must expand the number of congresspeople in order to most accurately represent the population. Again, this is faulty. To truly represent the population of the United States, every citizen must be made a member of congress. This of course is impractical, a line must be drawn somewhere. We already have the House of Representatives to reflect changes in population, concluding that the entire congress must be expanded is simplistic and raises many more problems than it solves.

  3. chadmach Says:

    With so many constituents and other things that representatives must attend to, it is no surprise to me that this generic letter was sent back as a reply. Even though this may be frustrating to many people who do send letters wishing to learn more or give their opinion on things, I feel like it would be just to impractical for a rep. to read every letter that was sent. This is very unfortunate, seeing as people should be able to keep in contact with their actual representative. At least someone is answering them though.
    To the comment above regarding more important issues, I would agree that there are bigger fish to fry instead of answering questions about broad band internet. However, it does not mean that Stabenow should not give her own thoughts on the matter, even if they are cookie cutter thoughts that could be found in other letters. As long as they are her thoughts on the issue and someone can make an opinion about her, I think that that would be enough.
    I would have to disagree that having more representatives is an answer to this problem. With more people running for election, it would be even more difficult to keep track of everyone.

  4. blogger32 Says:

    One thing I can definitely say is that I had no idea John Hieftje is mayor of Ann Arbor. I do agree with the point you made about feeling that I may not nearly as up to date on my local government’s activities as I could be. I also think you may be right about the internet playing a major role in this situation. Think about it this way, when you are scrolling through news stories on CNN or Yahoo! are you more likely to read the article that’s about an issue in a small town or one that is of international importance…I’ll go with the latter. I also agree with your point about us being impacted my local governments more than we think. For instance, there has been much debate about marijuana laws in Ann Arbor, and that is something that is solely controlled by the city not the state or federal government.

    I also think you make a good point about Locke and Rousseau who both did stress the importance of people participating in their local governments. However, I think one thing we need to take into account in this situation, is that in their times the local governments had far more jurisdiction than they do today. I say this, because we now live in a world that is broader and more connected, and the state and federal governments have more power than ever. During the times of Locke and Rousseau, people rarely traveled much farther than their city or town limits, and were not nearly as exposed to state or national affairs. I think that since we usually read about new state and federal laws, that we have begun to underestimate the value of having strong town or city governments. However, I hope that people can begin to realize the value of local governments, because they can also play a major role in the lives of its citizens.

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