Ten minutes. That’s all it takes for civic-minded townspeople to stop by the Ahern Middle School polls on Monday and cast a ballot in the annual town election. Even without the prospect of contested races, spending 10 minutes to make a statement about priorities and reinforce a personal commitment to local government, the community and each other doesn’t seem like much to ask.
Several weeks ago, retired editor Jack Authelet on this page pointed out that citizens owe a debt of gratitude, not just to those who stand for public office, but also to generations of veterans who put everything on the line to safeguard a way of life that begins with free elections. The very least we can do, Jack said, is exercise the right to vote.
As one might expect, we heartily endorse these worthy sentiments. But even beyond demonstrating an appreciation for those willing to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous political fortune, we owe it to ourselves — and future generations — to start taking civic obligations more seriously. After all, self-government by definition is a collective endeavor, and the first baby steps on that journey involve helping choose our leaders.
It’s a curious paradox that civic participation continues to wane at the same time people’s expectations of government at all levels — federal, state and local — have become fatuously unrealistic. Citizens have been conditioned to believe they deserve clean streets, great schools, abundant water for drinking (and lawn sprinkling), instantaneous response from police and fire, an engaging public library, plentiful downtown parking, minimal traffic, manicured parks and pristine conservation lands. Providing those amenities — not to mention paying for them — well, that’s for someone else to figure out.
But self-government isn’t someone else’s business — it’s ours. And it begins on Election Day, contested races or not. The fact remains that, absent a Proposition 2-1/2 override or some other hot-button ballot question, local elections rarely energize voters beyond an engaged subset of townspeople. Yet Foxboro, like any community, has its share of fault lines, often driven by spending priorities and some exposed in recent weeks. That’s not uncommon during the run-up to May town meeting, when townspeople are reminded there is no such thing as a free lunch.
So when citizens take to their keyboards and criticize local government – even when it’s deserved – they should start, more often than not, by looking in the mirror. Our institutions don’t function on autopilot; public involvement is required to keep things on track. And if folks abandon that basic duty it hardly seems fair to lament the rising cost of water or town government’s growing payroll. As 19th century French philosopher Joseph de Maistre famously observed: Every nation gets the government it deserves. And, we might add, every community does too.
Beyond spending, it’s become increasingly clear of late that townspeople have different minds on a number of foundational issues – such as what are the proper roles of our appointed and elected officials? What is our cost tolerance when it comes to maintaining local landmarks? What is the appropriate balance between preservation and progress? And ultimately, what kind of community do we aspire to be? If effective government truly requires the consent of the governed, that consent means little without seeking answers to these types of questions.
How can we rectify that? By ensuring that community leaders understand community priorities, making certain that openness and transparency are valued by those to whom it matters most, and taking steps to close the feedback loop with government officials — all of which require citizens willing to stand up and be counted.
Here at the local level, in particular, self-government has never been a spectator sport. True, not everyone has the time, aptitude or inclination to stand for public office. But armchair quarterbacking is no substitute for civic involvement — and the most basic form of involvement is casting a ballot.
So on Monday make a statement about your own priorities by casting a ballot. Even in an election without contested races, it’s more important than ever to send a message that local government matters.