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What can the National Issues Forums do for Centerville, Ohio?

As far as the everyday problems of running a city -- dealing with people who want their potholes fixed, teenagers who use the neighborhood street for a drag strip, or placating citizens who want the overflow from the ditch in their backyard eliminated--the National Issues Forum probably cannot do a whole lot.

What NIF can do is give us a better way to keep lines of communication open--provide a time, a place and a setting for people to come together and share opinions, to search for common ground, much like the model of the New England town meetings. And I feel strongly about keeping an open dialogue between citizens and government officials and between citizen groups.

The National Issues Forums is a broad-based consoritum of citizens who come together in community forums all over the nation for nonpartisan discussion about public issues. The aim of the forums is to get people talking about their community concerns, exchanging ideas, listening to their neighbors and hopefully arriving at a common ground and solutions that everyone can live with. NIF calls it deliberative democracy and citizen politics.

We held two NIF forums in Centerville/Washington Township this spring--one on health care and one on free speech. Both are issues that NIF has addressed in its issue books.

A well-publicized forum on The Health Care Crisis: Containing Costs, Expanding Coverage, March 24, drew a disappointing handful, mostly steering committee people already committed to attending.

The Boundaries of Free Speech: How Free Is Too Free?, May 6, attracted a credible and vocal 30 who seemed representative of the affluent, well-educated public that makes up these two communities--among them two high school students, several mothers of school-age children, middle aged community activists, two other elected officials besides myself, a school and a township administrator, and a few senior citizens.

All expressed grave concerns over the state of First Amendment rights. Their suggestions of how to resolve these concerns ran the gamut from control via censorship to an anything goes, no control attitude. The majority thinks things are out of hand but they are leery of outright censorship.

We came to no common ground. We didn't come to what we are willing to give up or put up with. And that is key to NIF.

My introduction to NIF was in December 1989. The director of the library, a city councilman, the former editor of the local newspaper and our grass roots anti drug coalition organized a forum on the NIF 1989-90 issue "The Drug Crisis: Public Strategies for Breaking the Habit."

Since I was chair of the county drug task force, they came to me and asked me to spread the word about the forum. It so happened, the week before the forum, we had an area Mayors and Managers meeting. I invited the whole group to the forum and several showed up.

The turnout, though it numbered better than 40, was less than the committee had hoped for. They told me I was responsible for about half of those in attendance. We had an enlightening discussion that morning. Too bad we were mostly preaching to the choir because a lot of good things were said, a lot of good information shared.

It was three years before I encountered NIF again.

In January, 1993, Joyce Young, a community activist whose involvement with NIF goes back to its beginnings 11 years ago, asked the city to be one of several forum sponsors and for me to serve on the steering committee. Others participating were: Washington Township, which is the unincorporated half of our community, the Centerville Schools, the Washington-Centerville Public Library, Seniors Inc., Centerville Kiwanis, and the Centerville Women's Civic Club.

This spring's forums are the first of what is expected to be an on-going series of local NIF community-wide forums on issues of national and local concern.

At our forum on free speech, I did not see a message emerge on how we feel as a community, but I did hear the concern. Young people think we should be able to see, do, say what we want to. Mothers want more control over what impacts their children. A few older people felt things had gone too far and longed for "the good old days"-- but, I ask, what is too far and who decides?

And, frankly, public officials are caught in the middle of this First Amendment dilemma.

The message I got from the forum is that people feel uncomfortable having the government tell them what to do. Yet, as a government official, I get calls from people who say they want us to do something. A case in point, several recent complaints I've received about the back room at the video stores where adults can go to select videos with a higher degree of sexual content than are allowed out front where underage youngsters can pick them up. Nothing illegal about that.

There is this things about setting community standards, but whose standards are they? Mine? Council's? The police chief's? Who decides?

If NIF and a series of forums can help the citizens of Centerville/Washington Township, the schools, and the elected officials talk to each other about the contentious problems that continually arise in today's society, we will be a better community for it. And we will be on the threshold of that coveted NIF common ground, ready to move to action.

But it will depend on people's willingness to take part and it is not easy to get them to come out. People are so busy. Unless it is controversial, unless people really feel threatened, they aren't going to show up. If someone is interested in an issue, they will come. Otherwise, they pretty much trust the elected officials to do what they were elected to do.

When people criticize government, it is because they aren't getting what they want. The government is trying to please the vast majority of people. We will not attract those who are pretty happy with what is happening. People have to perceive that they have something to lose.

And we must do more than talk.

Each individual at the forum the other night came away better informed for having heard other points of view. Careful deliberation and coming to common ground are not easy. This takes work. But I am committed to serving on the steering committee and continuing to help present NIF forums in this community.

Conversation, sharing and listening to others are critical to the democratic process.

Shirley F. Heintz is serving her third four-year term as mayor of the City of Centerville, Ohio, a Dayton suburb with a population of approximately 22,000. Prior to becoming mayor, Heintz served four years as a Centerville councilwoman. Centerville/Washington Township is the home of National Issues Forum.
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Author:Heintz, Shirley F.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Sep 6, 1993
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