Submitted by Ronald Fraser, Small Town Civics Administrator
Having lived most of my adult life in larger municipalities, my arrival in the Town of Colden, New York in 2007 began an introduction to civic life in a small, rural town. As I became more familiar with the governing process in Colden, I sensed that something was missing in the town’s organization and its administrative procedures. Eventually my misgivings and curiosity prompted this study, an attempt to better understand how the public’s business is conducted in my new hometown.
My guiding question is: To what degree do official actions in the small, rural town of Colden, NY, put into practice basic democratic principles that form the essence of public administration in America?
These principles apply to all units of government— large and small— and call upon elected and appointed public officials to possess and practice two very different sets of administrative skills and public service perspectives.
The first set of skills practiced by town officials supply a wide array of important day-to-day public services that are experienced directly by the town’s citizens. These services include highway snow removal, maintenance of the roads and the issuance of building permits and dog licenses. Because these services are easily judged good or bad by their customers, public officials tend to make sure they are conducted well and quickly respond to citizen complaints about poor service.
For two reasons these services are not the focus of this study. First, the Town of Colden does a generally satisfactory job providing these repetitive, routine administrative and operating services.
But more importantly, knowledge of democratic principles are not among the technical skills needed by the town’s highway department employees trying to keep roadways open during a lake-effect snow storm. In fact, snow removal and road maintenance services are provided equally well in non-democratic systems of government around the world, including communist China, socialist Sweden and in North Korea, a dictatorship.
In America, however, local government administrators are expected to also follow basic principles and to cultivate and put into practice those values that are a vital part of democracy, including: responsiveness to citizen opinions; holding officials accountable; trained and well supervised public officials; respect for the rule of law and due process; and the enforcement of local laws.
While application of these democratic values may be less noticeable and less tangible than repairing roadway potholes, they are nonetheless essential performance standards for town administrators— especially when they are facing complicated public policy issues and decisions.
The study will follow, more or less, this sequence:
o Review the work of earlier observers who have identified strengths and weaknesses associated with small town governments.
o Examine how the Town of Colden is organizationally structured and managed.
o Look at how the Town of Colden has implemented land use planning since the early 1990s.
This background will set the stage for an assessment of how well the town’s officials conducted the public’s business in accord with basic American administration principles and values when dealing with controversial gas and oil drilling issues and citizens expressing strong anti-drilling views.
While the study’s unit of analysis is the Town of Colden, I suspect the challenges found in Colden may very well help citizens and officials in the near-by towns of Holland, Wales, North Collins and Sardinia, and hundreds of other small towns in New York State—including the towns of York, Otego, Darien, Nunda, Callicoon, Milford, Hopewell, Stanford and Fayette—take a fresh, look at how their towns are governed.
In addition, this study will potentially fill a gap in the education of public administrators. Eleven colleges in New York State offer curriculums leading to a master of public administration degree. Perhaps because few small towns hire trained town administrators, these courses of study tend to not address, or give short shrift to, the challenges facing public officials in small towns. I hope this study can plug that gap with a report that will provide public administration students, even those destined to work in larger municipalities, a better feel for what is going on at the grass roots.
I will employ a participant-observer methodology for conducting research and data collection. From 2008 to 2013, as a participant, I served as a member and chairman of the town’s Environmental Board, and from 2012 to 2013, I chaired the town’s official Hydrofracking Committee. These ringside seats afforded me a close-up look at the governing process and valuable first hand insights.
In addition to practical experience, my educational background provides the technical skills needed by an observer of the town’s decision making process. This includes a Master of Public Administration degree, a Master of Regional Planning degree and a Ph.D. in Public Policy.
Town officials and citizens across New York State are invited to follow along as this study comes together and is posted here, on the Small Town Civics website (www.smalltowncivics.com)
But I hope you will take an even more active part by posting your own thoughts and ideas concerning the study. Your responses and insights will help me refine my own thinking and the content of the final report.
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2016 Copyright, Ronald Fraser. All rights reserved.
[whohit]In Search of Democracy[/whohit]