Study the government, Plan the Roads

Montana’s 1972 constitution is just packed full of interesting provisions–the right to a clean and healthful environment, the right to privacy, or, my favorite, the right to know (“No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions.”).

One unique provision of the constitution allows a city or county to elect, at ten year intervals, a commission to study the form and powers of the government. Sort of like a minature constutuional convention on the local scale, shorn of the powdered wigs and knickers.

In Missoula, both the city and the county elected to have one of these local government study commissions (LGSC) back in 2003. In 2004, the voters picked seven candidates each from two lists of names that I’ll admit to not recognizing a single one of by way of a disclaimer for some of their behavior. And by late 2004, the LGSCs were off on their mission of hearing why people elected to study government and what they want to change. The results are a list of measures on the ballot for next Tuesday.

I followed the LGSCs closer than most people since I’m interested in structural change to political systems and how it can be accomplished. I was just tickled to think I could see it happen in my hometown. Over the next week, I aim to introduce the measures on the ballot along with whatever background info I can give from my observation of the process. As you’ll see, I have strong opinions on some of them and still haven’t made my mind up on others. So maybe some of the locals will have a piece to say.

Oh, and while I’m speaking about bringing up some local Missoula issues, tonight’s the beginning of the West Broadway Charrette process; that’s going to build some kind of consensus about that wide strip of asphalt cleaving one side of downtown Missoula from another. On Thursday, the city takes a look at Russell and Third streets, a topic dear to the blog host (and near to his home). These meetings won’t be your last chance to have a say on what these roads look like but there’s nothing like getting in on the ground floor to make public policy a real romp.

To people embroiled in debate over the great political questions of our day–inequality, civil liberties, perverts in Congress–what shape a road takes might seem like a pretty piddling matter. Well, it’s not. And there are two reasons you should care.

The first is what one of my teachers (Ever notice how students might get a degree but somehow teachers always stay teachers?) calls the Churchill principle: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” The design of a road matters concretely to the quality of life of people as they live it everyday. Build a road designed for big rigs and high volumes and that’s what you’ll get–along with bare sidewalks, occassionally pancaked pedestrians and demand for more big roads. Build a road that’s good for cars and for everything else that could use it and you’ll wind up with not just a better driving experience but also a place that invites people into it. That’s good for commerce. More important, it’s good for community.

People who see each other on sidewalks and bikes interact with one another differently than people sealed inside cars. Building roads that encourage people to leave their cars allows people to see one another as fellow travellers and not just boxy metal impediments to commuting quicker. Believe me, it changes people’s attitudes. I can tell a few stories on that score.

But I promised two reasons you should care about the meeting and I want to get back to it. So, number two, you can make a difference just by showing up. Seriously, there will be maybe one hundred people tops at the meeting tonight and, likely, even fewer on Thursday. So already, you’re one percent of the vote. Not that there will be any voting but there will be plenty of chance to be heard. And that’s hardly like bumping up against billion-dollar corporations and national party machines to have a say.

So, take a moment, my politically-immersed companions, and let the windmills alone for a minute. Your city is making policy.

–Posted by readbetween

  1. cass

    Ah yes, what’s it called? “Attrition of automobiles”? Build roads designed so that people won’t want to drive their cars. Right.

  2. So did you make it to the meeting last night, as planned? If so, what road proposals were made and what was the feeling of the crowd?

  3. Did you attending the Russell street meeting last night, as planned? Which version do you like the best?

  4. readbetween

    You build roads so people have an option besides riding in the same lane with double-length tractor trailers. Or you just tailgate the people on bikes if you’re some kind of anti-social type.

    The meetings will be tonight and Thursday. I’ll let you know if anything interesting happens. Maybe cass will come and offer some input?

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