No one should underestimate the power of words

We encourage Clayton County residents to speak out.

It is surprising when you compare the number of people who email, call, stop by the newspaper or stop us on the street to express their frustrations over local government to the number of people who sign up for public comments at meetings, comment through social media or write letters to the editor.

It would seem people have frustrations but have a fear of putting their name to it and taking ownership of their own grievances.

However, we suggest that no one should ever fear exercising First Amendment rights. People can seize power through commenting.

Sometimes, when the elected officials you are the most frustrated with are not facing re-election, the most power you have to impact local government is the power of your words.

The First Amendment grants that power to all citizens with the right to “petition the government for a redress of their grievances.”

While the framer’s intention was to prohibit Congress from inhibiting citizens from participating in the federal government and voicing discontent without any fear of reprisal, the courts have consistently upheld the rights of all citizens to access all the halls of government, lobby for causes they believe in, express their reservations about pieces of legislation and generally make their voices heard.

Petitioning the government can take many forms and include actual signed petitions, nonviolent protests, letter writing and participation in public meetings.

Our county commission, board of education and each of our city councils provide for public commenting periods at some point in each meeting.

In some cases, these public comment periods are very informal and embraced by elected officials. In other cases, it appears those we have elected are merely tolerating public comments.

The self-imposed rules that each of the governmental bodies places on citizens for public commenting are not matters of law. It is simply what they choose to do.

Some limit the comment to three minutes, for example. Some only hear comments after decisions on a particular matter have already been reached. Some require signing up for commenting at some point prior to the meeting. Some allow sign up at the meeting.

Some insists citizens come to a podium and speak into a microphone. Other bodies are a bit less formal and less restrictive. Citizens should be informed that all these rules and stipulations are arbitrary and not required by Georgia law.

It does makes sense that there be some parameters for the sake of expediting a meeting, but just how restrictive local governments should be is also a matter of debate. It may very well be that our local governments need to hear some commenting about commenting.

Our larger point, however, is that citizens must take action and take government into their own hands. We will continue to say over and over again that government belongs to the governed not the governing.

Citizens should address the people they elect to represent them at every opportunity.

Of course, voices that are reasoned, informed and calm are generally heard above the rabble-rousers who simply seem to complain to complain, disagree to disagree and by doing so generally lose all credibility.

When citizens show up en masse at public meetings and comment in very informed ways, eventually it will make it very difficult for elected officials not to be responsive, at least in some ways.

Another open, free public forum available to citizens is also under-utilized.

Public officials may act as if they do not read the newspaper, but let one article be just a bit unflattering in their eyes and listen to them complain and scream “foul.”

They read it.

Letters to the editor and commenting on articles on the newspaper website through Facebook are excellent ways for citizens to have their voices heard.

At the end of each online article, readers have the option of expressing a point of view by using a personal Facebook login to submit comments. Facebook login is required to cut down on vile, senseless and immature anonymous rantings and, we know that elected officials just do not take any anonymous comments seriously.

We encourage all our readers to take advantage of these forums.

The newspaper or its editors do not have to agree with your point of view. Creating strong and meaningful public dialogue serves all the public, regardless of positions on particular issues.

We ask only that individuals writing letters to the editor provide your name and city of residence and telephone number not to be published but for verification purposes.

Letters should deal with public issues, not personal or domestic problems, not contain libelous content and not be vile in nature. While we prefer not to place exact space restrictions, letters should be to the point with a reasonable word count appropriate for allotted forum space.

Mail letters to: Clayton News Daily, 138 Church St., Jonesboro, Ga. 30237, or e-mail: jzachary@news-daily.com

— Editor Jim Zachary