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Citizen involvement required for local accountability

Dave Berg is a 20-year resident of Lake Oswego and a board member of Citizens for Local Accountability in Lake Oswego.

You may have noticed there seems to be a lot of local petitions on the ballot lately? All seem to be related to local spending and we may have a few more by 2012. In Clackamas County, we recently had the Vehicle Registration Fee initiative and another group has qualified a measure which would require that all urban renewal districts be approved by a local vote. Most of us are asking ourselves 'what is driving this grass-roots effort for change?'

Let's take a look at Lake Oswego as an example. In November 2010 I wrote in the Lake Oswego Review, 'Last week, three relative newcomers nearly performed a clean sweep of the Lake Oswego City Council election…. This wasn't happenstance, it was a clear mandate from the community to return to good governance and stop the irrational exuberance over risky projects and excessive spending that raises taxes, wastes tax dollars, and increases fees in a maturing community'

The residents of Lake Oswego were fed up with increased taxes, fees, and skyrocketing utility costs. That would have come as no surprise to anyone talking openly to residents, business owners and the community at large. However it was a very big surprise to our elected officials when residents voted to change the composition of our city council toward more fiscal responsibility.

Unfortunately more fiscal responsibility doesn't always translate into greater local accountability. Why? There always seems to be a way for local government to get around accountability. They do this by avoiding voter approval of large projects, voting in blocks on city councils, and ignoring public comment. Have you checked your local utility bill and fees lately? Citizens are increasingly paying for higher spending despite complaining within the public process about the need for less fees and taxes.

There was more than enough citizen involvement in Lake Oswego to show our council the concerns of our community. These concerns were not embraced by elected officials but largely ignored. Many of us couldn't understand why this was happening, until we became active, and finally did our due diligence. It became pretty obvious there was another agenda at work, and that our elected officials may not be all that interested in the concerns of real residents. We asked ourselves 'what is the real agenda?'

What is the agenda? Well, I call it the 'tax and spend to grow' philosophy. It's based on unlimited resources, ever growing expenditures, and the belief by local elected officials that we can afford most anything with more taxes and fees. That's not good when its coupled with big city projects and expenditures. Why? You need to raise local taxes/fees to ensure these expenditures are justified. That's ok if the public votes on it and approves it. It's not ok when it's passed by a local government without the legitimate 'informed consent' of its residents.

What does this agenda mean? 'Well we need more fees, higher fees, a local tax or a special district to pay for this project.' That is what we have heard for a number of years, ever increasing taxes and public debt. We are now just beginning to understand the cost of this approach at the local level. That's the difference between fiscal responsibility and the dominant 'spend to grow' philosophy. Live within your means or do anything to justify your ever-increasing expenditures. Sound familiar?

Citizen Involvement is required to evaluate the merits of not only the direction but also the specific projects in our local governments. It's the core issue in the 2012 election and all citizens need to participate. Feel free to visit Citizens for Local Accountability in Lake Oswego at commonsenselo.blogspot.com.