Vol. 9, No. 10
March 8-14, 2001
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Our Advice to Politicians: Listen — or Lose

It fell short of the proverbial 15 minutes of fame. Still, the presidents of four dozen of Southern Anne Arundel County's community associations would sit down with County Executive Janet Owens. With two hours promised, each would have about 2.5 minutes. If all 86 invited had accepted, it would have been far less.

If, on the other hand, the associations had been divided along the lines of the County's Small Area Planning zones, it could have been more time, perhaps a whole two hours, for each of the three areas, Edgewater, Deale-Shady Side and South County. Still, it seemed better than nothing.

That's how it seemed. But when the Feb. 27 meeting convened at 7:04 by Owens' watch, hope sunk quick as the setting sun.

With questions required two weeks before the meeting, Owens' department heads had, as she now said, worked hard preparing their answers in advance. Nine of them held the stage of the South County Senior Center, in Edgewater, like beauty queens. As Owens read the questions composited from her audience's originals, the department heads did their songs and dances.

Before the first question was out, protest flared. It wasn't the raucous variety that washed against the Center from two dozen Safeway opponents outside. Excluded from the meeting, they flaunted her effigy, a larger-than-life puppet, and chanted "Hey, hey, ho, ho Janet Owens has got to go."

"I have a question," interrupted the insider, representing one of the associations. But he was not on the program. He might speak, if time allowed, after the planned agenda.

As that droned on, the warmly awaited meeting turned cold as a sunless winter evening. And the embattled executive, elected in a populist uprising, passed up the opportunity to win over the respected and influential community leaders she will need if she intends to keep her job a second term.

She lost on a simple miscalculation. But it's one that's basic to the politics of the new millennium. If you ask people what's on their minds, you'd better listen.

Yes, the executive's community and constituent services staff paid attention to the issues on the minds of the associations that are - now that our Small Area Planning Committees have been retired - the only local governments for most Anne Arundel countians. Many questions were answered that night - though we fear many of the answers won't be remembered. Strip four or five dozen questions of personal relevance, then string them together and wrap them up with long, bureaucratic answers, and you've devised a great cure for insomnia.

But it's not just the substance of what they're saying that people want heard.

It's their voices.

Listening is the partnership that makes communication work. It's the act of respect upon which representative government is founded. And it's the first rule of the new politics that's sweeping Chesapeake Country and the nation. Just as the founding fathers did, we 21st century Americans hold our elected representatives as equals, and we expect dialogue. Give us debate and democracy, not monologue and monarchy.

That's a distinction Annapolis Mayor Dean Johnson takes to heart in his City Hall Comes to You community meetings. The next one is this Thursday, March 8, at 7pm from Germantown Elementary, and, as always, you, too, will talk - and the mayor will listen, spokesman Tom Roskelly promises.

So we'll be listening again for dialogue when County Executive Owens herself takes to the airwaves Friday, March 9, at 10am, for a live discussion of issues on the minds of her constituents. WNAV 1430 promises a half-hour of discussion that includes live give-and-take. We hope the exchange will be a true dialogue, spirited and civil.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly