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March 22, 2007

How fares democracy in western Pa.?

A panel of current and former public officials, all of them alumni of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, recently offered their views on the state of democracy in western Pennsylvania.

The March 16 public forum, part of GSPIA’s Wherrett Lecture Series in Local Government, yielded no consensus, but provided plenty of food for thought on how state and local government institutions and citizen involvement are changing.

GSPIA Interim Dean David Y. Miller, who moderated the panel discussion, noted that it’s difficult to measure the state of democracy in the region, given diverging viewpoints on what underlying principles constitute democracy. But, he said, larger national issues are playing out in western Pennsylvania.

“Western Pennsylvania is no different from the rest of the United States in terms of some macro forces that are in play about the changing nature of citizenship, the changing nature of the legislature, the role of lobbyists and campaign financing,” Miller said.

The event, which also featured faculty member George W. Dougherty Jr.’s research into citizen participation on municipal boards, drew an audience of more than 50 people to Posvar Hall.

Panelists were:

• Former 29th district state representative David J. Mayernik, now an attorney in the business and government relations departments at Pittsburgh law firm Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellot.

• Tom Michlovic, former 35th district state representative, now a member of the Pennsylvania Securities Commission.

• Eugene Ricciardi, former Pittsburgh City Council president, now a district magistrate in Pittsburgh.

• Jake Wheatley Jr., 19th district state representative.

Miller launched the discussion by asking the panelists how they feel state and local institutions are changing.

“Things have changed drastically,” said Mayernik, who served in the state legislature for 20 years. He credited the rise of information technology with changing government and how it operates, noting he and Michlovic were considered progressive when they were the first representatives to have computers in their district offices more than two decades ago. Now, recent House rules changes have made information on voting records available instantaneously online, he said.

Noting that information technology has made government more transparent, he cited the legislature’s July 5, 2005, pay raise vote as a turning point in Pennsylvania. “The public has really started to take notice of what happens” in state, local and national government, he said.

Mayernik added that proposed Sunshine Law changes that put the burden of proof on the government to show a document is not public (rather than forcing the seeker to prove that it should be made public) would add transparency.

“The newspapers are helping to drive the reform issue. The newspapers are driving the transparency issue. It’s all for the betterment of the institutions and democracy and people getting to know what is happening with their government.”

Michlovic agreed that there has been change, but “not fast enough.” He argued that time-pressed suburbanites spend a good bit of time in their cars, getting much of their information from “public policy disc jockeys on radio who often times take a narrow view of things.” He noted there also is more pressure on the fiscal side of government than on the side that delivers human services.

States that govern by initiatives and referendums often have budgets that are out of whack because citizens want lower taxes, he said.

He noted that fiscal tightening is hurting communities, particularly in local areas with little capacity for growth to supplant their budget shortfalls. “I think local governments are in real trouble … most help and assistance is coming from state dollars.”

Ricciardi said the City of Pittsburgh’s government has changed drastically in recent years, largely due to declining revenues.

“Just like your own household — when you’re short on money you have to change,” he said. While some change was positive — city government has become more efficient and accountable — some was negative, he said. There are fewer police officers, but crime has not decreased. The same infrastructure exists, but the ranks of public works employees were cut 60 percent, he said.

Ricciardi added that taxpayer and voter expectations of what the government should be doing have changed. City residents who are doing well expect the city to provide municipal services. “But if they’re not doing well they’re expecting something a little bit more, something that really touches their lives,” he said.

Changes in local government cause friction and tension with higher levels of government, Ricciardi said. “What happens is you have all these unfunded mandates.”

Wheatley said that those outside of government often refer to the government as something separated from themselves and their personal experience. Instead of asking if the institution is changing, Wheatley said the essential question is whether people are changing. “In essence this institution is a reflection of the people who send us to represent them in this institution,” he said.

Wheatley noted that technology has made him instantaneously available to his constituents because he carries both a cell phone and a Blackberry — much different from simply having a computer in the office.

Addressing the state House rules changes and push for transparency, Wheatley said, “When you peel it all back, what it really does for democracy and what it really means for citizens really becomes a question of, ‘Are citizens changing?’”

Citing Dougherty’s research that showed many local governments have trouble finding citizens willing to serve on boards, Wheatley said he feels both citizens’ problems as well as their interest in what their government does are changing for the worse.

“Most people have very little concern about the day-to-day operations,” he said. “What they really want to know is are my representatives … working in the best interest of me and my family?” If their taxes are increased they want to know why, and what they’re getting in return, he said.

“Things in their lives are more pressing than the day-to-day activities of their government” and many of them have lost faith that government can make improvements to their day-to-day lives, he said.

Miller asked the panel how the typical state legislator or city council member differs today as compared with a decade ago.

Time pressure has increased, Michlovic said, decreasing legislators’ ability to get to know one another.

“There was a virtue in my constituents not being able to get hold of me. It may have been that I was on a golf course with a bunch of my colleagues, but I could get their votes on an issue because I knew them. Now these guys are all wired in, too busy to interrelate with one another.”

He said playing softball or basketball with other legislators forged connections that aided in working together on government issues. “We have scads more information but we lose the relationships that make the system work,” Michlovic said.

Ricciardi said he’s seen the profile of elected officials change drastically, noting that they’re more visible and connected with their communities, that people feel more comfortable approaching them and that more of them serve full-time.

“If you look back when I was growing up, it was a part-time job for everyone. … Very seldom now can I give you an elected official who’s not 100 percent an elected official.”

Wheatley added that he’s seen the levels of divisiveness and partisanship grow. “That makes it harder for governance to take place,” he said, adding that the institutions suffer because citizens lose respect for them and see them as unable to solve their everyday problems.

Shifting the focus to citizens, Miller asked how their involvement and participation differs. “How is this changing, how is this different than two, five or 10 years ago?”

Michlovic reiterated the issue of time pressure. In spite of the ability to contact their legislators instantly, citizens aren’t participating. “They’re busier, just making a living.”

Ricciardi took a different viewpoint. As a lifelong member of community organizations, he said he’s observed a shift in who participates. “It was almost a social activity to go to the South Side Community Council and talk about some issues and afterward have a reception and to get involved with the neighborhood and raise some money and help the food bank and do very notable things like that.

Today, Ricciardi said, “People coming to our community groups know the issues; they’re very educated on the issues. It’s less social, but more pragmatic in terms of how can we make our neighborhoods better.”

Wheatley said he has tried to reactivate constituencies that have started to wane, but has found people often are not participating actively in their government.

“We’re wonderful at responding to crisis level [issues], but the ongoing participatory activism on a day-to-day level, I think we are so far removed from that. … This democracy we hold up across the world, we try to bring to other countries — I think the other countries are starting to do a lot better than we are. It’s a real concern.”

Mayernik noted there is an “unbelievable” amount of government information online. “Now you as a citizen can get that instantaneously,” he said.

He agrees communities are losing the activism of people whose lives are busy, but gaining the activism of individuals who are spreading information. “Before when I had constituents write a letter they had to either write it by hand, type it out, find my address, get a stamp, go to the mailbox. Now there are constituents of the 11.3 million people of this commonwealth who have all those legislators in their email list. They do one email and shoot it out instantaneously.”

Mayernik recalled the frustration he found as a freshman legislator who researched, studied and weighed the issues before him. “You’re trying to figure out what’s the right way to go. And then when you come home, nobody gave a damn, nobody asked you, ‘What about this bill?’ ‘What about this amendment?’ that we might have spent hours debating.

“Now, all of you in this room have the ability to look at that information, to have an opinion, to help shape that policy and to contact your legislators. And I think it’s great and I think it’s going to make for better government, better democracy. It’s going to be much more difficult to run the government in the everyday operation of passing the bills and everybody watching what’s happening. But overall I just think it’s fantastic and I just encourage you to participate.”

Miller also asked the panel about the implications of these changes for schools of public policy.

Ricciardi said it’s an appropriate time for schools and students of public policy to realize that they can have an impact. “The system is wide open. It’s not the backdoor policy-making, smoking-the-cigars type of days.” Information, innovation and imagination are crucial, he said, adding that an academic setting and informed reading are necessary to acquire the skills. Politics today is more about skills and less about personality and positioning, he said. “The implication is you have to be well-prepared and well informed.”

Wheatley added that schools must prepare the future generation of practitioners and elected officials with not only a sound background in theory but an immersion in practical experience. He urged the schools to expose their students to “the actual practical workings of government at all levels as well as the theory base” to best prepare their graduates.

Mayernik said he considered how GSPIA helps elected officials. In spite of the distractions government officials may face, “We need somebody with stability, someone with institutional knowledge. Someone who will keep the ship righted. That’s GSPIA students, GSPIA graduates,” he said.

Michlovic added that he views public decision-making as a human process and that the practical side needs to be taught. “Don’t spend all your time discovering the rationality of decision-making,” he said. “It’s not a rational process. It’s a political process. It’s a human process. Start understanding and teaching it. And start enjoying it. We had fun. We enjoyed our careers. It’s a great, wonderful process. Let’s start understanding it and teaching it and motivating people — new people and fresh people — to run, and take those positions and do a better job, perhaps, than we did.”

Miller’s final question: “If we take all of these trends … what’s your sense? Is the health of democracy better now? Is it in good shape?”

Wheatley said democracy locally and across the nation is in severe trouble because citizens “don’t know the basis of our independence, don’t even know the basic essential tools of what makes us a great democracy,” that many of the best and brightest are uninterested in public service and that people see themselves as disconnected from the government that is supposed to exist to serve them.

“I think it all puts us at critical risk,” he said. “The fact that you have more who are voting for ‘American Idol’ than in their national elections is incredible.”

Ricciardi said he finds the state of democracy in the region healthy and improving. “I see that citizens are more informed, more educated, more willing to get involved. For good or bad, the media has connected us much better,” he said. Admitting that there always will be disenfranchised voters, he said, “We have to reach out to them. But I see the state of democracy in western Pennsylvania [improve] and do much better.”

Michlovic pointed out the Mon Valley area he represented and Wheatley’s district in Pittsburgh are older and less affluent than Ricciardi’s South Side or Mayernik’s North Hills regions, making him less optimistic. “I’d say we are in trouble, too, because of the lack of participation,” noting there’s a different level of commitment and participation in poorer communities than in the affluent.

“I think we’re doing great,” Mayernik said. “Democracy is moving. People are paying attention … As long as people continue to be involved and see what’s happening and continue to be vocal and be active, I think that our democracy is moving forward.

“The days of the old politico, of ‘We’re picking you and you’re going to go to Harrisburg and you’re going to do what you’re told,’ I think those days are gone,” he said.

The more people recognize what’s happening in government and how it affects their pocketbook, Mayernik said, “They will get involved and the elected officials will react and vote accordingly.”

GSPIA’s Miller commended the panelists for their participation, adding: “It’s also very clear that we are extraordinarily thoughtful about these issues and that the opinions of our panel, although divergent in many respects, are consistent in terms of thoughtful reflection on public values and the role of public service. I would certainly like to think that GSPIA played a small role in helping to form those opinions.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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