Democracy flourishes at home, not so much at national level

February 27, 2011 

What do the isthmus development debate, last year's big backlog of county assessment appeals and the misguided $180,000 speech bubbles artwork once proposed for the new Olympia City Hall have in common?

Aside from the fact they are all local events, there’s no obvious connection.

But let’s look closer.

When a previous Olympia City Council raised building height limits on the isthmus property in an attempt to generate some high-end downtown housing, many local residents disagreed. Some objected insisting the Capitol Campus view corridor be protected. Others wanted to expand Heritage Park. But they all came together to petition the City Council to reverse its land use decision.

Ultimately, these concerned citizens mounted a political campaign that defeated council incumbents and enabled the new members to reverse the building height decision.

The former Thurston County assessor allowed a big backlog of property assessment appeals to clog the system. But public pressure and a series of stories in this newspaper pressured the county and assessor’s office to clean up the backlog.

Although two City of Olympia arts committees gave enthusiastic support to bronzed “speech bubbles” to adorn the new City Hall, the public rebelled. Citizens were stopping council members and the city manager on the street to object to both the comic-style concept and the $180,000 price tag.

Are these completely unrelated events?

What binds them, it seems to me, is the notion that democracy still works on a local level. Voters have their say in free elections. The press serves a useful watchdog role to keep public officials accountable. Citizens exercise the right of assembly and free speech to influence political action.

Take it to another level — to the scores of neighborhood associations spread across Thurston County — and you’ll find thousands of regular people using democratic principles to govern themselves and hold each other accountable.

But go the other direction — to the state and national levels — and the notion of democracy looks less like the political system we know down here in America’s small towns.

In Washington, D.C., it doesn’t much matter what middle-class folks like you and I want, because the big-money people and corporations are the ones really calling the shots. The higher you go, the fewer people it takes to change the course of a nation.

Take the infamous Koch brothers, Charles and David. They’ve become two of the richest men in the United States by operating oil refineries ranked among the nation’s worst polluters.

They have given multi-millions of dollars to political campaigns, lobbyists and think tanks to create tax breaks, relax environmental regulations, and ignore the science about climate change.

Is it just a coincidence, then, that the U.S. House of Representatives’ budget proposal slashes funding for the Environmental Protection Agency? That it whacks a billion dollars from energy efficiency and renewed energy programs and another billion or so from the Department of Energy’s research division?

This isn’t about party politics. There are plenty of money lenders doing the same thing for progressive causes, too.

At danger of evoking an already overused comparison, the protesters in Egypt fought for the right to freely elect their government. In America, we are letting the power of the people slip away into the hands of the mega-rich and corporate elite.

It wasn’t always this way. Americans took to the streets for civil rights and to oppose the Vietnam war, and the will of the masses prevailed.

Fortunately, real democracy still lives in places like Thurston County. And, as we’re seeing around the world today, real change only comes from the bottom up, when individual people like us finally decide to take action.

ET CETERA

While being honored by the Thurston County Chamber for his leadership in reviving the company and saving jobs at Grays Harbor Paper, President Pat Quigg mentioned that the recent Obama budget was printed on their topselling environment-friendly commercial paper. And then he added, “Of course, some people might say the budget wasn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.” ... Looking for something warm and fuzzy about the recent cold temperatures? The freeze is likely killing off some of the invasive New Zealand mudsnails in Capitol Lake. ... According to international news reports, Ron and Rhonda Servine, of Olympia, have escaped the violence in Libya on a ferry boat sent to rescue other Americans.

George Le Masurier, publisher of The Olympian, can be reached at 360-357-0206 or glemasurier@theolympian.com  

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