Recall the old PR-professional’s riddle. OK, fine. I’m the originator, but it goes like this:
If you announce a press conference and no press show up, is it still a press conference?
Last week, I remembered this frustrating riddle of my professional past and became inspired to create a companion quandary after reading this story by the Tulsa World’s Jarrel Wade.
If you hold a public forum and only one member of the public attends, is it still a public forum?
Theresa Landers had more city resources at her disposal Tuesday than possibly any other single resident in Tulsa history.
The Mayor. Four city councilors. Former councilors and possible council candidates. Chiefs from both the Police Department and the Fire Department. Police officers. The head of the police union. City department heads. Council aides and others.
The ratio was about 25 of Tulsa’s best and brightest to 1, a 74-year-old neighborhood association acting president and longtime resident of City Councilor David Patrick’s District 3.
Landers was the only person at a public forum in the library of Lewis and Clark Elementary School on Tuesday night who didn’t have a position, familial relation or aspiration at City Hall.
The public meeting was one in a series organized to educate residents about the city’s public safety needs.
That’s right, only one person showed up to a Tulsa public meeting on public safety.
Perhaps the public was too frightened by the prospect of leaving home after dark?
Perhaps there was just too much on TV that night.
But what kept the most folks home glued to the tube? A new episode of NCIS? The Sun Belt football battle of Lousiana-Lafayette at Arkansas State? It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown? Who knows?
Perhaps Tulsans just didn’t know about the forum. Or maybe they just didn’t care.
Whatever the reason, low civic participation is nothing new. Had my old pal Jarrel not been in attendance for the Fourth Estate, the public would have never known that the public wasn’t there. (Think about that statement for a hot minute.)
“It was a very unique experience,” Landers told the Tulsa World. “How could you not show up? It’s your money. It’s your safety.”
Indeed, Ms. Landers.
But the vast majority of the population doesn’t seem to care.
Take the Norman Forward sales-tax initiative vote from just two weeks ago. It passed 9,095 to 3,527, meaning only 12,622 people cast ballots.
But at the time of the election, Norman had 63,228 registered voters, according to Trisha Rittenhouse, information services coordinator for the Cleveland County Election Board.
That means only 20 percent of registered voters said “yes” or “no” to 15 years of a one-half-cent sales tax to fund large projects in the city. Fifteen years!
“Eh, whatever. Who are the Sooners playing next?” 50,000 Local Yokels must have asked.
If you go back to the last mayoral election for Norman, only 10,886 of 62,961 eligible voters voted. That’s only 17.3 percent participation.
Such electoral impotence spurred Sen. David Holt (R-OKC) to lead the charge in passing two bills this session intended to help voter registration in the state.
SB 312 consolidated local community elections to either the spring or the fall. SB 313 will eventually offer eligible Oklahomans online voter registration at the state election board’s site, which is hilariously not hyperlinked in this NewsOK piece on the topic.
But neither bill can do much to address low voter turnout or the major impediment to improving public participation in this thing we call Democracy: apathy.
And that’s not meant as a slam on Sen. Holt. We don’t have any better solutions for apathy, either.
We’ve tried to run this October Meeting Calendar and encourage Oklahomans to attend public meetings, but we’re fairly certain it has been unsuccessful.
Political hobbyist and semi-professional media heckler David Glover created www.BadVoter.org in the same vein of shaming a disengaged public into better participation. It’s a fun tool that also helps people sign up to vote by mail, but it’s certainly no cure for the dysfunctional Democracy that ails us.
But I suppose things could be worse here in the Sooner state. Take a look at what happened this year in Columbia, Mo.
The Columbia Community Improvement District carved out a public vote on a half-cent sales tax for some nebulous area around the “business loop” of a state highway. Ironically, only one voter lived in the area. A 23-year-old college student worried about sales-tax effects on the poor, Jen Henderson wasn’t too keen on the proposal.
The result? The CID board postponed the vote.
So kudos to the Jen Hendersons and Theresa Landers of the world. Thank you, Jimmy McMillan of The Rent Is Too Damn High party. Much appreciated, Wanda Jo Peltier/Stapleton of OKC city-council-meeting fame.
The world needs its characters like E.Z. Million to engage — however obtusely — in the civic process, because somebody has to.
If not, there’s a final riddle with a more solemn answer:
If no members of the public give input on public matters, do the politicians and bureaucrats spend public money anyway?
Yes. Yes, they do.
(Editor’s Note: This story was updated to clarify online voting as prescribed in SB 313.)