12/29/10: A few civic resolutions for the New Year

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

THINKING ABOUT making some resolutions for the New Year? No doubt you’ll probably resolve to spend more time with family, lose weight, get out of debt, become more organized or something along those lines, as those are among the top resolutions people choose each year.

Such personal resolutions are, no doubt, important. But what about civic resolutions? Have you thought of any? Let me offer a few suggestions.

Our elected representatives should resolve to embrace transparency. It costs little to let the sunshine in, but the dividend — gaining (or regaining) the public trust — is huge.

In Norfolk, it could be as simple as holding all council meetings in the evenings, including work sessions, perhaps alternating the formal and informal sessions each week. At the very least, minutes from the informal work sessions would be a positive step.

And a little accountability goes a long way. What we’ve seen in Virginia is the creation of entities that appear to be accountable to no one, with Hampton Roads Transit, the Community Services Board and the constitutional offices among them.

Our representatives should resolve that the buck stops somewhere.

As the General Assembly persists in adhering to the antiquated Dillon Rule, lawmakers have to put safeguards in place to make these entities accountable. If Norfolk appoints members to the board of the CSB, they should be accountable to the city. If Virginia Beach provides the majority of the funding for the constitutional officers, they should be accountable to that city. And if the board of HRT is composed of appointees from the seven cities, they should be accountable to them all. Resolve that there be something more than just cursory reports of activities.

There are some 1.7 million people in Hampton Roads. Those making appointments might want to consider that when looking for nominees. Resolve to reach beyond the usual suspects — there is a wealth of talent in the region waiting to be tapped.

Of course, the appointees have a responsibility, too. Simply attending a board meeting once a month is usually not enough. If you serve on a board or commission, resolve to gain a better understanding of the entity’s operation and its culture.

All citizens have a role to play in making our representatives responsive to us. Resolve to participate in this democracy of ours — at every level — by making time to learn who serves on your city council and your school board.

For the ambitious among us, resolve to attend a council meeting or a school board meeting or two, or offer to serve on a board.

Get to know your state legislators. Follow their votes in the General Assembly. Write them, call them or, better yet, visit them in Richmond when they are in session. Let them know what is important to you.

And if you didn’t vote in 2010, resolve to do so in November, when the entire General Assembly is up for election, after making sure, of course, that you know what the candidates stand for.

Resolve to read something written by somebody whose political persuasion is different from yours. You might not agree, but at least you’ll have a better understanding of the perspective.

Ultimately, we are government, and government is us. A little give and take by elected officials and citizens alike can only improve the process. Let us resolve to make it happen.