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The summer of our political discontent

While supporting democracy movements abroad, maybe we should become a better role model on the home front.

Some residents in the Forest Grove School District want to recall school board members while some residents in Cornelius want to recall city council members.

David Wu was forced to resign his seat in Congress. President Obama has a 40 percent approval rating, the lowest of his presidency. Congress has an approval rating of 8 percent, the lowest in memory.

These are merely some examples of a general public distemper.

The rise of the Tea Party is another marker of voter unhappiness. Closer to home, the debate in Washington County over the urban and rural reserves issue continues to fester, leading some to feel county government is an insider's game not open to citizen input. Ultimately, the courts will be asked to decide.

Why do so many distrust our government here at home, in Salem or 3,000 miles away in D.C.? The economy going south is a key factor in our discontent, as is Wall Street's tone-deafness to Main Street.

It has become fashionable to argue that government has become dysfunctional, tied up by partisan bickering and gridlock where only the dealmakers play the winning hand.

I would suggest that both the public and private sectors at all levels is suspect. So what can we do here in Washington County?

A group of Washington County 'citizen' activists, led by former county chair Linda Peters, has been working since March to create a broad based coalition - Washington County Citizen Action Network (WC-CAN) - dedicated to improving quality of life in Washington County by promoting healthy and sustainable communities, social and economic justice, and open and responsive government.

Contrary to Harvard's Robert Putnam, the author of 'Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,' we are not 'bowling' alone in Washington County! Participants are intent on creating a robust citizen action movement that can empower those who all too often feel left out by the powers that be in the private and public sectors of Washington County.

WC-CAN's goals are to empower people and citizen involvement; foster sustainable, health-enhancing communities; improve environmental stewardship; achieve social and economic justice; and ensure open and responsive government.

Many of the grassroots organizations - from Bethany's 3NOT5, Save Helvetia, airport expansion opponents, those concerned about urban/rural reserves and members of the faith community concerned about poverty and homelessness in Washington County - want to protect and improve our quality of life.

They hope that by getting better acquainted with other activists they will:

• Discover common ground, common problems and areas of overlapping interest.

• Share useful information.

• Increase each group's effectiveness on its issues.

• Influence the direction of political, social and economic change in our communities.

WC-CAN members do not expect to agree on all issues or how they should be resolved. But they do agree to listen respectfully, finding commonalities and fostering a culture of civility and collaboration. They believe that together we can support and encourage:

• Each group's advocacy efforts.

• Like-minded public officials.

• More open, transparent, and responsive government in the county and region.

• Well-informed citizen participation in governmental decision-making.

While WC-CAN's primary focus is Washington County, it's understood that decision makers in both the public and private sectors impact us all. Therefore, one needs to be attentive to what's happening in our state capitol, at Metro and in the boardrooms of major corporations located in our region.

WC-CAN seeks to give citizens a greater voice in critical discussions about the design of our neighborhoods, transportation systems and public spaces.

Since all politics are local, we must have a robust local-level democracy to ensure that all citizens, not just the well connected, have needed information and direct access to influence decision-makers.

When an area in Washington County is targeted for changes in transportation facilities, land uses or governance, residents and property owners should be involved early on in crafting changes.

WC-CAN seeks to empower people by encouraging volunteerism, individual initiative and a sense of shared community.

The goal is to move away from short-term thinking to long-term thinking. The political process is too often focused on election cycles. Business decisions are centered on quarterly earnings. We need to imagine the impact of our current decisions in a time span of 10-50 years. By encouraging citizen activism beyond the tepid efforts of the current process, WC-CAN wants to create an energized and informed citizenry in Washington County based on open and transparent governance.

Ironically, this sounds similar to the demands people in the Middle East have been articulating during their Arab Spring.

While the U.S. is supporting democracy movements abroad, perhaps we should become a better role model of such on the home front. WC-CAN seeks to be a catalyst for such change here in Washington County. It appears that there is a local audience hungry for WC-CAN's message.

Russ Dondero is professor emeritus, Department of Politics and Government, at Pacific University. Read his blogs at www.russdondero.squarespace.com .