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Wake up and read the budget

If there's any silver lining to the turmoil that plagued local governments in 2011, it's the community response that followed.

There may be no more soporific piece of prose than a newspaper editorial urging its readers to engage in some sort of fundamental, yet fatiguing form of civic engagement. But, what the heck, we're doing it anyway.

For if there's any silver lining to the turmoil that plagued our local governments in 2011, it's the unprecedented community response that followed.

In Cornelius, voters replied to a takeover of the city council with the recall of three members. Councilor Jef Dalin, one of the two remaining, rose to the occasion, steering the short-handed panel through the appointment process and deservedly taking the mantle of mayorship.

With three new councilors in place, the city is poised to hire a new city manager from an impressive roster of candidates.

The Forest Grove School Board also faced the recall of two members and much like Dalin, chair Alisa Hampton demonstrated amazing leadership skills in bringing the sometimes fractious panel to a consensus on two replacements Monday night.

But neither achievement should be viewed as an end. In both cases, the prospect of open, unpaid positions on a local governing body brought out more highly qualified applicants (such as Vickie Cordell in Cornelius and Jen Norman in Forest Grove) than there were slots to fill.

It's our hope that those people will stay engaged with their cities and schools and find other ways to make contributions. The recently formed Forest Grove School Citizens Advisory Group is a great example of how people can make a difference in shaping a discussion.

Another positive development is a focus on money. The recall in Cornelius was responding to a trio of elected officials who failed to understand the budget constraints the city is under. In Forest Grove, two board members lost their seats because of the perception that they didn't ask enough tough questions about how money is spent in our schools.

At a time when many family budgets are shrinking, it makes sense that people would want to ensure that their tax dollars are being spent wisely.

With this new interest in their budgets, public officials must find new ways to explain them or risk enduring more demoralizing and divisive voter revolts.

A good start would be creating summaries and analyses free of bureaucratese and buzzwords. Making draft budgets and supporting documents more easily accessible would also help. The Forest Grove School District is planning no fewer than 20 public budget-eyeballing sessions this spring, and we're happy about that.

We're also glad to see that in Forest Grove city politics, the Committee for Citizen Involvement titled the theme of this Saturday's Annual Town Meeting 'Show Me My Money.'

Organizers promise a jargon-free crash course in municipal finance, with city staff members on hand to dive into the details of the budget and take notes on what residents find confusing or incomplete.

The following weekend, members of the city police department will be hosting a forum on Neighborhood Watches, including a presentation about public safety financing. (Details on both events can be found on page 5A).

These events offer people a chance to drop in for a casual conversation about important discussions and, perhaps, inspire them to find other ways to get involved before things devolve into another 'throw the bums out' campaign.