Ordinary citizens fuel democracy

Published March 20, 2012

Complaining about special interests' hold on government is easy. Doing something about it, much less so. But at least three times in recent weeks in Tampa Bay and in Florida, average citizens frustrated by government have gotten more involved. And that is good for democracy.

The latest examples came this week when two very different Pinellas County groups signaled they would no longer tolerate the status quo. On Monday night, the Faith and Action for Strength Together's annual gathering put laser focus on the county's 20 schools with the lowest reading scores. The alliance of 38 faith congregations is lobbying to have the Pinellas County School Board embrace a specific curriculum, Direct Instruction, for those schools.

School Board members in attendance — Linda Lerner, Robin Wikle, Janet Clark and Glen Gilzean Jr. — understandably resisted demands for an immediate shift to such a crucial policy. But having 3,000 citizens in one place discussing the problems in public schools — far more people than have attended a year's worth of School Board meetings — could be a start to real engagement and, ultimately, progress.

Similarly, a coalition of community groups is pledging to take on the complexities of municipal budget writing in St. Petersburg. The People's Budget Review said this week it hopes to collect at least 10,000 residents' responses to questions about how they would like the city to prioritize spending on public safety, parks and recreation, and economic development. The results won't be scientific but will likely be far more extensive than what Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council would normally collect in the annual budget process.

And finally, as a story by the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau's Kathleen McGrory highlighted Tuesday, it was a loose coalition of parents' groups statewide that managed to thwart, on a tie vote in the Florida Senate, the so-called parent trigger bill this month. Pushed by former Gov. Jeb Bush and a California group, the bill would have allowed a small cadre of parents to all but decide to turn over a low-performing public school to a for-profit charter school company, even though all taxpayers pay the bills. The opponents' grass roots effort is proof that average citizens can make a powerful difference even when outgunned.

The right laid out in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to petition the government for redress of grievances is what sets this nation apart. And while much more attention may be given to large, amorphous campaigns like the Occupy movement, these groups have a chance to make a real impact by tackling specific policy issues in their local communities. This is how democracy is supposed to work.