Alaska editorial: Citizen involvement can cure corruption

Posted: Thursday, May 17, 2007

This editorial appeared in The Homer Tribune:

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This week's news about Alaska legislators allegedly taking oil bribes generally produced one response. Sadly, while people were frustrated and angered by the possible crimes, they were not, by and large, surprised. Instead, the indictments substantiated their already-existing belief that politics are crooked and most decisions get made behind closed doors.

While the individual allegations in this case are important, the damage to the infrastructure of our political system is much greater. Why should constituents participate in public forums when they feel their voice is muted by the interests of those with more green in their pockets? Why should people even bother to vote when they have so little faith in the political system that few candidates stand out as true representatives? Why, indeed.

It used to be that people who thought this way were labeled conspiracy theorists. Today, unfortunately, this perspective is mainstream, and is surely a driving factor in voter apathy and other illnesses of our political system.

Even on a local scale, some wonder if the decisions made by elected officials on the Kenai Peninsula are made in the best interests of the people that live here or the best interests of the people sitting in positions of power. As a result, fewer people bother to get involved with politics than ever before.

The problem with just giving up, however, is that it only enables those who are looking to take advantage of the situation.

It is true that there is only so much time people can dedicate to Alaska politics. Council and borough meetings are lengthy, and sticking with a process long enough to be heard is a challenge. Part of the burden for interpreting all the minutia and letting people know what is important falls on the shoulders of the press. But even then, how many times have your eyes glazed over as you try to read through a story about city council action?

Unfortunately, the only way to stay informed is to put in the time. And failing to do so leaves the door wide open for dirty politics, bribery and the complete failure of our political system.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity people have to make things change for the better is when they choose their political leaders at the ballot box. Occasionally - not often enough, unfortunately - candidates surface who sound different than the pack. They may have some controversial ideas, and they may not look like the quintessential politician. People are intrigued, but all too often vote for some else because they want their votes to count.

Perhaps this is the point where the contemporary political system truly falls apart - when "safe" candidates are selected rather than those who most closely represent our views. Perhaps we believe that only these slick movers and shakers can work the system - get our roads built and keep our schools funded. But at what expense?

Ultimately, elected officials, be they national, statewide, borough or city, need to think only about those people they represent, not the individuals they know, their own interests or those of their friends and their colleagues. And only the individual attention of the constituents to what they are doing will guarantee such action.

The bottom line is that self-fulfilling prophecies tend to come true. Vote with knowledge. Pay attention. Squeak your wheels when needed. It's the only way to keep it all working the way it is supposed to.

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