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Public officials need to listen

Many voters feel like their voices aren't being heard.

When we looked at our calendar at the start of 2011, we had no way of knowing we'd spend our fall evenings watching election results in western Washington County.

In late September, Cornelius voters recalled three members of the city council, including the mayor, who led the effort to oust former City Manager Dave Waffle.

Last night, election officials counted ballots on the recall of two Forest Grove School Board members. (See story, page 3A).

In Cornelius, the three elected officials lost their jobs because of what they did, while the two school board members were targeted for not doing enough.

Still, if there is a theme that emerged during our autumn of discontent, it's that many voters feel like their voices aren't being heard by those who represent them.

This feeling isn't new (just ask the Tea Partiers), but it has gained momentum in recent weeks with protests that have spread across the country.

For those who don't want to spend weeks sleeping in public parks, there are other ways to make the same point.

Last week, for example, the short-handed Cornelius City Council was reviewing the qualifications for the city manager post when resident Dave Schamp asked to speak.

Schamp, who started coming to council meetings to oppose Waffle's firing, noted that the previous job description included this line: 'The city manager [needs] to reach out to citizens to help them understand the challenges the city is facing, and be able to work within a diverse, multi-cultural environment to make all parties feel as if their voices are heard.'

That seems like a noble goal, but Schamp was bothered by that last sentence. Why, he asked, should the city be satisfied with people feeling as if they have a voice? Shouldn't the city manager, and the elected councilors, ensure that residents' views are actually considered?

Acting Mayor Jef Dalin and the other two councilors agreed that the phrase, while well-intentioned, sent the wrong message. And, in subsequent wordsmithing, the language was changed.

It's a small thing, but a good example of what Schamp was talking about. A resident got involved, offered some constructive criticism to elected officials and walked away knowing that he'd been taken seriously.

Other local governments would do well to follow.

A month ago, the City of Forest Grove was hit with a $6.5 million legal judgment stemming from employees' conduct relating to a development that stalled in 2005.

Aside from a press release criticizing the jury verdict, the city has been silent.

We understand that officials must be careful what they say while considering an appeal, but someone from the staff or city council needs to step up, explain what happened, outline what the city plans to do and enlist some ideas of how to move forward.

Similarly, school district officials, facing their own financial woes, also need to engage community members.

Superintendent Yvonne Curtis has taken steps to do that, scheduling a 'School Talk' for Thursday evening to talk about the current challenges. (Details on page 8A).

This proactive approach is laudable and we were glad to see she has allowed time for questions. The real test, however, will be whether people walk away knowing they've been heard, or just feeling like it.