Steps Forward

Jonathan LaBonte

Holding discussions about our government, from the local level to national, happens all the time.

Health care policy, unfunded mandates, and the stimulus package and its planned trickle-down effect of federal spending are all specific examples of policy-speak.

Less frequent, however, are deep philosophical debates about the fundamental role of government.

From wrangling for new power sources in the Lewiston City Council chambers to the great debate about Supreme Court nominees and the role of the federal judiciary, this should be an exciting time to be an American and have this discussion.

Of course I say it “should” be; there is little confidence these debates are being driven by people recognizing flaws in its government and who wish to reform them to protect their integrity, viability and flexibility to meet their core purpose.

These reforms, or rather re-interpretations of government power, appear to be led by those in positions of influence who would stand to gain by change.

So, as citizens go about living their daily lives, the government is becoming increasingly complex; just navigating those bureaucracies truly confirms that the people, as the seat of power, have become diminished.

In the past few weeks, executive sessions and public rhetoric have pitted some Lewiston elected officials against city staff about the role of councilors, administration, and the intent and language within the City Charter.

A City Charter, of course, is a set of rules that provides power to city government to take specific actions and then delegates those powers to individuals.

The desire by some to have greater influence, then, was met by resistance and ultimately a legal opinion confirming the limits of power.

Is finding the limits of your power justification then to seek a change in how government works?

At the national level, President Barack Obama has offered his nomination to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor.

Opponents to this nominee, and likely any nominee from the president, cite fear of “judicial activism.” They also point to an interview with the president, from long ago, in which he was quoted describing the U.S. Constitution was fundamentally flawed.

While this has been likely taken out of context more times than not, clearly the president sees some deficiencies in how constitutional language is interpreted and how it can advance key policies.

All of this discussion highlights a tried-and-true scenario in American democracy, when adversity arises.

Thomas Jefferson once said that “what government can bear depends not on the state of science, however exalted, in a select band of enlightened men, but on the condition of the general mind.”

That statement calls us to remember that the power of government rests in the hands of the people, and not those in positions of power or intellectual standing.

This statement, and the lessons to be learned from it, will be critical in the coming months and years if any attempt to reform government takes hold.

In our busy lives, trying to hold our jobs, caring for our families and finding time to relax with the Maine summer knocking at our door, it might be easier to pass the buck on understanding the direction of government.

So, get engaged. Before you listen to the next debate over the Supreme Court, take a few minutes and read the U.S. Constitution. Before picking up that next story about the role of the City Council, download and take a look at the Lewiston City Charter.

Watching the sparse crowds at the recent Memorial Day parade in Lewiston-Auburn caused me to question if enough people recognize the magnitude of this freedom and ability to self-govern and that blood indeed had to be shed to protect those rights.

Civic engagement isn’t easy, I admit.

But it also wasn’t free.

Jonathan LaBonte of New Auburn is a columnist for the Sun Journal and an Androscoggin County commissioner. E-mail: [email protected]


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