The right kind of Citizen’s Advisory Committee

There’s been a lot of talk lately about citizen’s advisory groups in Trenton politics.  We’re in such a bad state that it seems a good idea to get citizen input on the policies that might revitalize the city.

Of course, citizens have already had quite a bit of input in the election process.  We elected a Mayor and seven council people who are supposed to represent our collective thinking.  One way or another, citizens have been guiding Trenton’s progress all along.  How’d we do?

It’s unreasonable to think that our elected officials have or ever will have the best answers.  They’re only 8 people and seven of them have only a part time commitment. 

So, how should citizens engage to help our elected officials deal with the city’s issues?

Several community groups sponsored a Community Leadership forum last night in Trenton and run by a group called Citizen’s Campaign.  They talked about how to become a political party activist, a citizen legislator, an appointed board member and a citizen journalist.  The theme was, get involved and lobby for your favorite issues.  That’s all well and good but they said nothing about how citizen’s can actually have helpful input. 

Not every word uttered by each and every citizen should be engraved in stone.  Much of the so called input citizens give is dribble and if taken as serious would be harmful to the city’s economy of useless at best.  One hope is that the law of large numbers introduced by the voting booth, a board vote or a petition will dampen the truly bad ideas.  But how can random citizens generate the “great” ideas and insight necessary to turn Trenton around?

There are two kinds of committees that are we might have in Trenton: citizen panels and citizen “think tanks”. 

A Citizen panel asks only that its members be both residents of the city and somewhat diverse in their backgrounds.  Recommendations from such a panel will therefore be somewhat reflective of the collective thinking of the population.  No real requirement for anymore than an opinion is expected from such a panel and therefore the panel is representative of the typical voter.  Representative but perhaps not enlightened.

A Citizen “think tank” is different in that it requires its members to discipline their recommendations with data driven analytics and research.  Members may be diverse in political, racial and even socioeconomic background but they must all possess analytical skills beyond those of the average citizen.  We will expect enlightened thought from such a group.

A politician hoping to gain political cover by engaging a citizen panel may not be looking for real input, rather he’s hoping to placate those that want a voice without the responsibility that a voice entails.  Given the dire nature of Trenton’s situation, it is preferable that our elected officials avail themselves of the offers that have been repeatedly made by citizen “think tanks” made up of the most thoughtful minds in Trenton.

Such a group could take on important policy projects including:

  • Recommending a “Budget Approval Process” for the city
  • Developing a method for gathering citizen input on priorities
  • Evaluating the impact of a property tax reassessment
  • Exploring the opportunity from new revenue sources
  • Studying the workload impacts of city lay-offs
  • Creating a 10 year model evaluating the path to self-sustainability

Projects like these would be difficult and potentially expensive for the city to conduct on its own.  Furthermore most are best done outside the context of political self interest.  Lastly, the changes they may lead to likely require “buy-in” from the community and therefore political risk, our politicians can offload that risk to a citizen “think tank” that doesn’t have electoral skin in the game.

By engaging a citizen “think tank”, the Mayor and Council can explore the new ideas that will lead the city out of its decline and into its ascent.

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