By Connie Denney
(The essence of this column appeared in this space November 3, 2009.)
“Make it sound right to you.”
It’s a good piece of advice I heard after making the decision to run for public office. It came from someone I respected as a former elected official. I did not win the first time I ran but gained much from the experience, which served me well later, after I WAS elected alderman for the town of Erwin. Due to past experience and a natural curiosity, asking questions was not new to me. “Make it make sense to you” came to mind many times.
Public service does not guarantee all will be pleasant. But, it is a means of giving back to one’s community, state, country, or—in some cases–to humanity’s well-being. It should not be entered into lightly, without really knowing it’s something you want to do.
Just ask those who serve on our local governing bodies. Doing the best job you can includes doing the homework. Without doing the homework, no one of us is going to know all he/she can about a subject or how action on one issue will sit within the context of a budget or all the directions in which the effects may ripple.
One ripple that can interfere with smooth sailing is the question of conflict of interest. Should a person employed by a governmental entity serve on its governing body? If a person or his/her immediate family stands to benefit financially by the actions of a public body, should that person have a vote on its budget? These questions may seem a bit tougher in a small community where “everybody is related to everybody.”
There’s “conflict of interest” in the literal sense. Then there are references to legal wording that leaves no doubt, the conflict is declared. Laws and/or policies regarding who may hold office under certain circumstances may vary from entity to entity. That, too, can make it all seem harder to sort out.
One thing’s for sure, though. This make-it-sound-right-to-you thing goes for voters/taxpayers, too. Not only should those who have sought and been elected to public office be ready to seek out the information they need to make an informed decision without consideration of personal gain, the citizens being served have the right and responsibility to think for themselves.
There is no shame to asking questions. If something just doesn’t sound quite right, it might not be. If you ask probing questions, you not only have the satisfaction of doing what you can to become well-informed, you, also, give the other party the chance to give you information you might not already know, or to convince you of his/her position. That implies listening and being willing to change your mind. Maybe you’ll even imagine how you would think or feel differently about an issue, if your circumstances were different.
If you are questioning an elected person who has a vote on how pubic money (partly yours) is spent, you have every right to ask questions and have input into the decision-making process. Make it sound right to you.