Make time for democracy

A recent U.S. News & World Report carries a scary interview with Rick Shenkman, author of Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter. Shenkman asserts that only 40 percent of voters can name the three branches of American government; 49 percent believe that the president can suspend the Constitution.

Such ignorance and apathy applies to us citizens of Asheville in regard to local issues. For years, the city allowed Target to ignore the requirement to install a turn lane on Swannanoa River Road at South Tunnel Road. Nobody said a thing until the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods brought the issue to City Council and the city manager. Eventually Target lived up to its obligation.

Apparently, few citizens know or care that there are members on the county Planning Board continuing to serve although their terms have long expired. Nobody raised a ruckus when City Council changed the Urban Village portion of the UDO to accommodate a single developer.

The general public won’t necessarily know about these things unless they spend a lot of time following the proceedings of governing bodies. But when reported, there seems to be little outrage at these abuses and failures by government. Why?

Recently I spoke with a woman who claims her cat was killed by a speeder on her residential street. She posted a large sign in her front yard (which may, itself, be illegal), but when I asked if she had complained to the police, she said, “No, it doesn’t do any good!” She’s right; her complaint, of itself, may not do any good. But if enough of us complain, eventually something will be done—but it takes time. And I detect a cynical assurance on the part of government at all levels that most of us don’t have the patience to complain and then wait for a solution while keeping up the pressure for action. We just give up.

It took five years to get traffic calming on Gracelyn Road and about four years to push through action in the Grove Park area. Eight months ago, I had coffee with the traffic engineer concerning issues on Merrimon Avenue, including a dangerous curb at the corner of Merrimon and Maney. Recently the hazard was removed. I also pointed out to him on a neighborhood walk how the sidewalk was overgrown in spots. It is the property owner’s responsibility to keep shrubbery from obstructing sidewalks, yet that problem exists all over town. [The traffic engineer] himself noted an area of sidewalk that would have been impassable to someone in a wheel chair. Within two weeks the shrubbery was cut back, and now new sidewalk is being laid down.

These fairly simple and straightforward issues were resolved simply by making them known to the right person. Other issues require repeated reminders, insistence, and even indignation and angry protest. But citizens do, ultimately, hold the power in our democracy. Not all of us have the time to be at the forefront, but in the day of the Internet, all can send a note to City Council or the county commissioners. Democracy is a gift. Unless it is nourished and cared for and enjoys our active guidance, it will grow sickly and die.

— Michael N. Lewis
Asheville

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