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I’m starting to get the invitations for my 40th college reunion next summer, which means that next spring I will be completing my fourth decade of doing this “first draft of history” thing.
Some of it doesn’t get old. I still get goosebumps whenever I witness the First Amendment in action, and specifically the part about the right of the people “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
I like working in small towns because it’s here where you see this rite of democracy in its purest form. There’s no more basic expression of the First Amendment than the room full of unhappy citizens letting their local government know why they’re unhappy.
The local government, which is comprised of our friends and neighbors who chose to get themselves elected, usually responds in one of two ways: They listen and change their minds, or they wait out the storm of public opinion and then go ahead and do what they wanted to do anyway. The latter course sometimes has repercussions in the next election.
This week we’re about to bear witness to two such moments. Shortly after typing these breathless words, I’ll be driving to Fish Creek to watch a crowd express themselves to the Gibraltar School Board. And Wednesday night, another crowd will march to Sturgeon Bay City Hall to present petitions to the Plan Commission.
In each case they actually won’t be “heard” in a literal sense. Neither body is likely to take testimony from their spectators. In Gibraltar, the agenda calls for a closed session to discuss the circumstances of Secondary Principal Kirk Knutson’s departure last week. The crowd’s sole purpose is to make a quiet statement of support for Knutson.
It actually has been anything but “quiet” in Northern Door since, by several accounts, Knutson emerged from a meeting with Superintendent Tina Van Meer and an attorney and walked out of the building. The School Board voted to accept his resignation a few hours later. Nearly 1,000 residents and students have joined Facebook pages and sent letters to the board demanding a better explanation than has been given so far.
In Sturgeon Bay, the testimony was taken last week, and it was largely disapproving of the plans for a five-story hotel where the West Side Waterfront Plan originally featured a year-round farmers market and festival area built around the historic grain elevator. Another local commentator calls it “bait and switch,” and it sure appears that way, with all due respect to the folks who have been working on the plans.
In most cases that bring out a crowd, people feel caught by surprise and want more transparency. Very often the surprise is partially our own fault; some people said they had never heard of the waterfront plan until now, even though it’s been the subject of more than one front-page story in this publication, for example.
But very often, too, officials have worked quietly with a sense of urgency that almost suggests a desire to get something done before too many people can get a good look and object – sort of like the football team that wants to snap the ball before anyone takes a careful look at the replay.
I don’t really have a dog in either fight (what an awful expression), except of course for the watchdog – the Wisconsin tradition that assumes the affairs of government by the people must be conducted out in the open where the people can watch if they so choose.
And that’s why moments like these give me goosebumps. Usually the government doesn’t have much of an audience. It’s thrilling when people actually do choose to watch and make their presence known.