Public apathy a growing problem for town governments

DOVER — They’ve tried in many ways, that’s for sure.

Cheswold elected officials have held open houses, hosted heritage days and publicized town information online, but interaction with constituents has waned in the past months. Vice Mayor Larence Kirby said about 20 citizens attend each council meeting, but that number has diminished as well.

“We don’t receive as much contact and feedback as we’d like,” Mr. Kirby said. “Citizens are engaged with their daily lives so we need to increase ways to communicate with them.

“We’re still not communicating at a high level,” he said. “We have received feedback on residential area appearance, a crosswalk leading to Family Dollar, speeding through housing developments, and community fellowship.”

Council meetings are held the first Monday of each month at the town fire hall at 691 Main St. in Cheswold.

In Woodside, council meets at least every other month, and also gathers for special meetings as they arise. Attendance has risen the past three years, depending on the issues at hand, Secretary Brenda Richards said.

An average of 15 to 20 citizens attend meetings in a town of approximately 181 residents. Bowers officials report attendance of six to 10 citizens. In Houston, where a comprehensive-plan rewrite will bring at least 20 meetings, officials may see zero to five residents present; a special meeting could drawing up to 20.

“I have received positive feedback from residents about the town newsletter and having consistent town meetings scheduled,” Ms. Richards said. “Most of the contacts are made to the mayor, as his phone number is the one to contact for problems or concerns.

“I do receive some emails about issues to follow up on, but mostly it goes through the mayor.”

In addition to meetings, citizen participation at elections is low. A half dozen municipalities in Kent County held elections in recent weeks and the voter turnout ranged from 155 votes cast in Wyoming to 80 in Frederica. In Little Creek, those running were uncontested for office and an election wasn’t needed.

On election day in Camden Saturday, Feb. 23, 106 votes were cast as two candidates vied for one open council seat. On that day, a dozen or citizens arrived at town hall in the first 15 minutes or so, about half of them waiting in the parking lot as the poll opened at noon. During the roughly seven-and-a-half hours that followed, the number of voters dwindled to an average of just over 12 every 60 minutes.

Low monthly attendance

Milford City Council is scheduled to meet twice a month and members are part of committees meeting at least every month. Councilman Michael J. Boyle described attendance as “sparse,” with less than 10 citizens present unless an issue attracts more.

“Even then, those who do attend a meeting are there for a particular agenda item and normally leave the chamber after the item has been acted/voted upon by the council,” Mr. Boyle said.

Little Creek officials have public meetings once a month, joined by an audience of three to four residents, Councilwoman Cheryl Bundek said. As with other municipalities, she said some issues will draw more residents out.

Smyrna meets twice monthly and Councilman W.D. Pressley said he seems to see the same 15 to 20 folks each time.

“I get a lot of feedback — most of it is good and positive,” he said.

Less than a dozen townspeople sit in on Little Creek’s monthly meeting, Councilwoman Stacey Hoffer said.

“We don’t have a very high attendance at our town hall meetings but when we do see people from town they typically have an issue or complaint to bring to us,” she said. “Most of the time it’s something we’re aware of and working actively to fix but sometimes it’s conflict we have no agency to resolve.”

“I’d say more people attend now than last year, but I think it’s because we have seen some development come through.,” Ms. Hoffer said.

Dover council meets twice monthly for regular meetings and twice for the Committee on the Whole.

“However, most members of Council are actively servicing constituents and addressing their concerns in between official meetings,” Mayor Robin R. Christiansen said.

He described the audience as typically “light except when there is a hot topic on the agenda.

“My only hope is that the public is viewing electronically via TV or online. I personally feel it is the responsibility of each of us as citizens to participate or at least be aware of the important issues and be knowledgeable of not only city issues but county, state, and national issues as well.”

With broadcast capabilities, Dover Councilman Bill Hare said he believes many citizens watch from somewhere other than town hall.

“I know quite a few that do that, as I will get calls the next day with questions,” he said.

Fellow Dover Councilman Fred Neil lauded the city’s government as operating transparently thanks to that broadcast opportunity along with website information that includes meeting minutes and announcements.

“I believe citizens attend when they are specifically affected by action the council is scheduled to take,” Mr. Neil said. “The ebb flow at attendance depends upon that.”

Dover Councilman Matt Lindell, who has served on a Kent County board of education, said he generally has been able to count attendance at Dover meetings on just his two hands, not counting city employees. That low-turnout is consistent with his school board experience.

“When I served on the school board, most of the audience were district employees, too. I would say the trend is consistent.

‘Far too few’

Camden council meets on the first Monday night of the month, 12 times a year. The same four or five residents attend regularly, according to Councilman Larry Dougherty, but that’s “far too few.”

“Usually there is very little contact with the majority of town residents,” he said. “I do hear from residents when there is a perceived problem which I do try to help resolve.

“I have generally had good luck in being able to help resolve these problems.”

Judging attendance, Mr. Dougherty surmised that “it indicates a belief that the town is doing well financially with no real concerns over issues that will negatively effect residents.”

Magnolia town council gathers the second Monday each month, along with special meetings dictated by circumstances.

Mayor James Frazier said citizen feedback is “not that much until something goes wrong and some residents have unrealistic expectations about how much influence town council actually has outside the town.”

There’s typically no attendees at meetings, which Mr. Frazier said has persisted throughout his time in office.

Councilwoman Valerie M. Forbes of Smyrna said “Because of our size and because I have been on council for over 12 years I am approached by constituents all the time; either by phone, in person, by e-mail and sometimes when I’m just out living my non-council life,” she said.

“Typically issues that we as a Council see over the years are electric rates and rising taxes.

“I hope that people here in Smyrna see me as a voice for them and entrust me to make sound decisions on behalf of Smyrna.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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