I have been to my share of meetings at Wheat Ridge City Hall, and walked by this sign, which is front and center in the lobby as you enter, many times. I don’t think I ever actually read it. I know I looked at it, but I guess I unconsciously assumed that the blurb was some lofty vision of a utopian existence that you would expect from a city, or some catchy marketing slogan like “The City That Was So Nice They Named it Twice” (Walla Walla, WA).
I arrived early for a meeting last week and found myself staring around the lobby for something interesting, and finally landed on this sign. I read it, turned away, turned back, and read it again, thinking “did they really put that on the wall?!” Reading it over and over, for at least a few minutes straight, I thought that I had to be missing something. Was this some long-deliberated philosophical ponderance, or was this a simple pragmatic statement of fact?
It turns out that the city had a motto contest and Mrs. Genie Merkle, an active citizen, won with this motto in 1977. The Colorado Municipal League uses it on some of their material, but I did not find any background on the motto itself.
Let’s parse it out: it starts with people creating government. So, even though we were all taught about government in school, how many of us today actually believe that people create government? We look at our current state and federal government as though they are untouchable aliens from another world, beings we don’t understand making decisions over which we have no control. That feeling of helplessness naturally extends to our local government, regardless of how real and accessible they might be.
Creating the “quality of their government” is next. That takes it a step beyond school civics class where all I can remember hearing is that we must vote and choose our leaders and decide on limited issues. We tend to think of that choice as yes or no, her or him. Rarely do we hear about our choices, our “creation”, having any impact on the actual or even perceived “quality” of the government. We just choose who sits in what seats. Can we really affect quality?
“Through participation or neglect” is the finish. The meaning of the motto is actually the same with or without this final phrase, so why is it included? It comes across accusatory, even threatening. In 1977, only 8 years into cityhood, was Wheat Ridge suffering from a lack of participation and did Mrs. Merkle and the motto selection group believe that those words were necessary?
I realize that parsing out a motto is not exciting, but neither is government. Have you ever sat through a budget discussion or an analysis of a zoning change so someone can build a garage? Given that the exciting parts of government are infrequent, how can we promote participation?
I think it is through community. I think the motto is missing that key component that creates quality, encourages participation, and overpowers neglect. The feeling of accountability and ownership when someone is a part of a community will forever be more powerful than the feelings of guilt or citizen obligation. The forces of community members banded together will forever be more powerful than any individual action. I can’t discount the value of individual action, but it is those actions as part of a community of others that truly create the quality of government, and the quality of life.
Adam is a recovering suburbanite living the dream here in Colorado, spending most of his time outside with his family, schlepping his stuff around on his trusty bike, showing people how cool it is to get around with their feet, legs, and transit, and learning what this "community" stuff is all about. He's always willing to share a bike ride or a good beer, and preferably both.