By Rebecca Noecker, City Council Member, Ward 2
Civic engagement is a lot like exercise. We all know it’s good for us, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do.
Most of us are busy leading our lives — packing lunches, rushing to work, making dinner, paying bills. That doesn’t leave much time to stay informed about current events, attend public hearings or meet with elected officials — even when we know we should.
But the price for disengagement is unacceptably high. Our policies are not as good when they are informed only by the handful of people with the extra time to research issues and show up. I think often about the fact that I represent 44,000 people — yet I only engage with a tiny fraction of them on any given issue.
I believe one of my most important responsibilities as an elected official is to make it easier for more people to be engaged in the life of our city. I try to do that by meeting people where they are — holding regular community coffees and happy hours in neighborhoods and hosting online “virtual lunch chats,” visiting small businesses and attending community events.
But being easy to reach is only half the battle. Public issues are usually too complex for the average busy person to dig into, so we need to make these issues easier to understand for more people.
A great opportunity for doing that is coming up this summer as we begin to think about our budget for 2020.
Creating the city budget is one of the most important things we do all year. How we divide up our roughly $500 million general fund between parks and libraries, street maintenance and pedestrian safety, police and fire protection — these are decisions that matter in our everyday lives.
But the budget is also particularly hard to engage with. It’s complicated and math-heavy; presentations are filled with charts and acronyms; and it all happens at the worst time of year for busy families — summer and fall.
We can do better.
The Mayor has already gotten things off to a good start with his “Our City, Our Budget” meetings, which brought to life the hard choices we have to make about how to spend limited dollars.
Soon it will be the City Council’s turn. The Mayor will propose his budget in August and the Council will spend the rest of the year hearing from departments about what they need, understanding the tax implications for St. Paul residents, and making tough decisions.
It’s important to me that Ward 2 residents feel able to engage in this process all along the way and that we have an open conversation about the decisions we need to make. I’ve been thinking creatively about how to do this (why not a budget video, for example?) and I’d really like to hear your thoughts. Please write me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 651-266-8620 to let me know:
• What are your priorities for the City in 2020?
• What do you want to better understand about the City’s budget?
• How can we make the budget process more accessible to you?
I look forward to hearing from you.