Wanted: Nervy Citizens To Assume 'Gadfly' Title
By Rebecca K. Abma
"Dissent, like the gadfly, is easy to swat, but the cost to society of silencing individuals who are irritating could be very high," — Plato, paraphrasing Socrates' testimony in 399 BC.
In the eight months since starting the Midland Park Press, I have come to notice something very unique about the way borough business is run: No one questions things. With the exception of a few meetings following the failed school referendum in December and the battle over a baseball tournament on Memorial Day weekend, citizen participation at council meetings is non-existent.
I first began covering government meetings while I was still in college in the 1990s. I have covered dozens of communities and I have never seen anything like this. At almost every Midland Park Borough Council meeting, three reporters sit in their same self-assigned seats while the rest remain empty. Meanwhile, virtually every other community has at least one dedicated citizen who suits up, shows up and speaks up.
Whether concerned over taxes, business, sports or borough services, every community I have covered has had a least one — usually three or more — resident who questions the status quo. They're called gadflies after a type of fly that pester cattle. The term dates back to Ancient Greece and is used as either an insult or a compliment depending on the side of the issue you are on.
Al Campbell, Managing Editor of the Cape May County Herald, wrote an inspiring editorial about the important role these citizens play in local government, which is reprinted in part (in italics) below:
Gadfly. Keep that word in mind. Its definition: Someone who persistently irritates or torments another person. Without such people, let’s just say the world would be one bottomless jar of creamy peanut butter. Everything would always go smoothly, right or wrong, because no one would really want to rock the boat. There would be no reason to question or to ponder the weighty issues of life, like “I wonder what would peanut butter be like with real chunks of peanuts mixed into the stuff?”
“Heresy!” That might be the first utterance from creamy peanut butter lovers, and to them, it might be right, so why not let the world be the judge?
Wanted: Gadfly. Must be knowledgeable, passionate about one’s cause (or many for that matter), fearless to approach elected and appointed officials. Should have keen ability to readily differentiate jargon, hooey, and malarkey at all levels. Have strange desire to emulate Don Quixote de la Mancha, and unstoppable yearning to confront windmills and dragons.
To the above, add to the mix, “undeterred by being thought a bit odd by some fellows.”
The article goes on to discuss a pair of bills sponsored state Senator Loretta Weinberg updating the Open Public Meeting Sunshine Laws and the Open Public Records Acts. Unfortunately, the bills, which would have required municipalities to post meeting agendas online in advance of a public meeting among other issues of transparency, were withdrawn from consideration earlier this year.
Campbell's column reminisces about a number of great gadflies he has encountered in his more than 30 years of municipal journalism, and concludes with these important points:
The list of gadflies could likely fill an entire column, because there is at least one in each municipality in this county and state (editor's note: except Midland Park). Some we love, others we loathe because we do not espouse the same causes they cherish.
Absent gadflies, who would have the nerve to question why taxes go up? What is the reason for that new ordinance? Why do we need another half dozen cars added to the municipal fleet? Is that suspended administrator on the payroll or not? The answer: No one. If that becomes reality, joy would fill the hearts of many officials who to wield will and power without question for the public’s benefit.
We need gadflies now more than ever. Answer the call. Do the work, and never expect anyone to say “Thank you!” (Other than the editor of the Midland Park Press, that is.)
The Midland Park Borough Council meetings are held the second and fourth Thursday of every month, unless otherwise rescheduled (as noted on our events calendar). Meetings are broadcast live on the MPK Press Live Stream Channel and also available for viewing after the meeting. We also publish brief meeting notes following each council and Board of Education meeting. There is no excuse for not knowing what is going on at Borough Hall.
On the surface, it appears as though Midland Park residents are completely contented with everything that goes on in town. But conversations with residents and business owners, and sometimes contentious discussions on Facebook forums, show that is not the case.
Why aren't there more people attending council meetings and asking questions? Are people too apathetic or too afraid to challenge the status quo? Or are people truly too content to care?
What do you think? Tell us in the comments, below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.