Monday, December 6, 2010

Inauguration of 17th Council

As the 17th Montgomery County Council and the County Executive were sworn in, I had the privilege of speaking on behalf of the new Council. My comments were about you (who read blogs like this one) and others who remain unaccounted for in our public discussions, and I reflected on our challenge as elected officials to make sure we consider the views of all of the nearly one million people we represent. Here is the complete text:

The opportunity to serve Montgomery County on this Council is a tremendous honor and privilege. On behalf of my colleagues, I want to say thank you to all of the voters here and throughout the county for your participation in the democratic process and for placing your trust in us.

I also want to thank our families and friends and ask their forgiveness for our frequent absences. Perhaps sometimes we made you feel that you are not our first priority. Please believe me when I say you are.

Anyone who has participated in a political campaign knows it isn’t glamorous. It consists of long hours filling out questionnaires, knocking on doors, shaking hands at Metro stations, fundraising, asking friends and family for help, planting yard signs, participating in community forums and a whole lot of “other duties as assigned.”

So, why do we run for public office?

I believe it is because, as Woodrow Wilson said, “there is no higher religion than public service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed.” By taking the oath today, we commit to serving the residents of Montgomery County to the best of our abilities. We mean to do it with compassion, care and a very deep sense of responsibility.

County Executive Ike Leggett, being sworn in for his second term today, has made it his mission to include more voices in public debates. He has committed to “making a bigger table,” in order to invite participation from residents and groups who have not participated before. He has done a terrific job encouraging inclusiveness, and I congratulate him on that.

I hope the 17th Council will build on this in the coming term. It has been said that if you are not at the table, then you are on the menu. We cannot let that be true. We must think bigger. We must think beyond the table and those savvy enough to find a chair. We must remember that our service for the common good includes taking into account the needs of those who are not at the table.

The last Council broke new ground in its efforts to reach out to the community. We embraced new media, and you can find us now on Facebook, in the blogosphere, on YouTube and on Twitter. We improved accessibility for those who speak other languages. We added a dedicated budget hotline, improved our Web site, and enhanced our presence on cable television.

Yet, I fear it has not been enough. When I look around the room during public hearings, I do not see a true reflection of our County’s diversity, be it ethnic, racial, economic, generational or geographic. I see an improvement, without a doubt, but many are still not represented.

How do we engage more people in their government?

Here’s a reality check provided courtesy of the Newseum. Twenty percent of Americans know the five members of the Simpson family; only three percent know the five freedoms protected by the first amendment.

So that you don’t spend the rest of the morning counting on your fingers, the five members of the Simpson family are Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie. The five freedoms are speech, religion, press, assembly and petition.

We like to think we are different from the national trend here in Montgomery County, but consider this. In our primary election, 80 percent of registered voters failed to exercise the sacred privilege of democracy—their right to vote. The General Election wasn’t much better with 44 percent failing to show up.

Recently I joined a Scout Troop to help them earn their civics badge. When they asked why people didn’t vote, I had a difficult time coming up with a good answer.

So what can we do?

I call on the 17th Council to make every effort to consider the needs of our constituents who, because of family obligations, work, lack of information or whatever reason, remain unaccounted for in public discourse. We are not just about the voices in the room – or even just those at the polls.

I hope we can agree:
· That our definition of the common good will be all-inclusive;
· That we will listen, not just to what is said but also for what is not said; and
· That we will consider the voices of tomorrow as well as the voices of today.

If we can do that, our county will be the better for it.

Samuel Johnson said “the true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.” And so, we must keep in mind the varied viewpoints of the nearly one million women, men and children of this county as we take on the big issues of transportation, education, the environment, public safety, services for the most vulnerable and the biggest budget challenges the County has ever faced.

As I close, I want to share a poem entitled “Leadership” by Mary Lou Anderson.

Leaders are called to stand
In that lonely place between the no longer and not yet
And intentionally make decisions
That will bind, forge, move
And create history.

We are not called to be popular,
We are not called to be safe,
We are not called to follow,
We are the ones to take risks,
We are the ones called to change attitudes;
To risk displeasures,
We are the ones called to gamble our lives,
For a better world.

On behalf of returning Councilmembers Valerie Ervin, Phil Andrews, George Leventhal, Nancy Navarro, Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich and myself, along with new members Craig Rice and Hans Riemer, I pledge that we will do everything in our power to be the leaders Montgomery County residents want and deserve.

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