How to Become A Better Citizen in 2011

Having worked in and around politics for most of my career, I have always found it refreshing to start off the new year at a municipal or county reorganization meeting.

The experience doesn’t match Times Square for excitement, but if you are cynical about government (and who isn’t these days), these sessions are feel-good events. Smiles, handshakes, hugs, and promises of working cooperatively toward common goals are the order of the day. It’s a bit like the coin toss before the start of a football game – a few moments of courtesy and civility between opponents before they start trash talking and beating out each other’s brains.

It’s unlikely that the ugly side of politics will disappear in 2011, but there are a few things we can do as citizens to become better New Jerseyans and hopefully help move government in the right direction:

Go to the Show: Go to a town council, school board or freeholder meeting, or trek to Trenton to watch the Senate and Assembly in action. You won’t turn into an expert overnight, but by taking a firsthand look at the process of making laws, you’ll be better equipped to form knowledgeable opinions. As Bob Dylan put it back in 1964: “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.”

Learn the Players: Do you know the name of your Congressman? Your representatives in the State Assembly and Senate? Your local officials? If you’re reading this column on an internet news or political site, you’re probably already well-acquainted with your elected officials.  Unfortunately, not everyone is as well-informed. But beyond names, we all should take a little more time to learn about the men and women who represent us. Learn their priorities, their accomplishments and goals. Read their bios and you may discover you share something in common – your alma mater, your profession, your kids’ soccer league.

Go Back to School: Wherever you live in New Jersey, a college or university is nearby. They offer lectures, concerts, theater performances and special events and programs. Most are open to the general public. Prices are affordable, sometimes free. Going out to hear a leading newsmaker or some other high-profile public figure at a college will do a lot more to make you a better citizen than staying home and watching American Idol or Dancing With the Stars (or for that matter Fox or MSNBC).

Vote Early and Vote Often: This advice usually is given in jest (hopefully) about voter fraud and corruption, but at least half of its message is a good one. We should vote often – not in the same election of course, but in primaries, school board elections, fire district elections and other contests in which turnout traditionally is low. The stakes may not be as high as in a presidential or gubernatorial campaign, but the results do have impacts, often on our taxes.

Don’t Make it Personal: Debate is a key element of democracy and ideally produces better candidates, better leaders and better government. But debate should stay on the issues. That’s a tough challenge, given the polarization and partisanship that characterizes politics today. Politicians know what they sign up for when they enter the public arena, but they’re people too – people who have spouses, sons, daughters and parents, all of whom can’t help but be hurt by comments that focus on personal issues that have no bearing on how well or poorly one performs in office.

Give A Compliment or Two: It’s human nature that we fire off angry letters or nasty posts when we are upset about something our elected officials do. We should indeed keep holding politicians accountable. But by the same token, let them know when they cast votes or take stands that means a lot to us.

Don’t Forget the Media: Journalists get criticized every day – from the left and from the right, often by people who have no concept of how a newsroom works. Reporters are big boys and girls who know that criticism comes with the territory. But we also should be willing to let journalists know when they write stories that are well-researched and well-written and make a difference in our lives. Journalists value feedback – and today feedback is as easy as clicking a link at the end of an article.

With property taxes, pension reform, redistricting and other major challenges on the horizon, 2011 will be another challenging year for state government in New Jersey. The simple steps outlined here won’t be enough to solve any of these problems, but they can help us find the path we need to follow to get there.

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