Living Democracy

Council Meeting Provides Stage for Good Citizenship

Roanoke City HallI attended my first city council meeting in Roanoke on July 13. With its meeting time at 6 p.m. right after the end of many people’s working days, I imagined it would be a pretty small crowd. Much to my surprise, as we walked into City Hall ten minutes before the meeting was to start, the council room was almost completely full. The remaining seats continued to fill up in the intervening minutes, and latecomers had to pull a chair from the stack along the wall in order to find a seat.

In some ways, the meeting may have seemed fairly ordinary. There were no dramatic confrontations or highly contentious resolutions. Indeed, the foremost topic of the evening involved an initiative to repave roads by the country club, which met with general agreement from the council and the present citizens.

The council also reported on the declaration of two ‘nuisance properties’ in town and the addition of a local home to the state historical register. It further entertained resolutions to be settled at a later date concerning pay raises for government employees and measures to ensure proper usage of the softball field during benefit tournaments.

In other ways, at least to me personally, it was remarkable. I was truly impressed to see the ways in which local citizens cared enough to participate in a civic mechanism dedicated to making their town a better place.

Town council meetingIn the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll admit that, not only was this my first city council meeting in Roanoke, it was my first time going to a city council meeting ever. I consider myself to be a fairly civic-minded person, and, yet, in my 21 years in my hometown, I’ve never once participated in one of the most meaningful instruments citizens have to work directly with their city governments.

Maybe that’s a function of my hometown being very different than Roanoke. I grew up in a town of about 30,000 people that is a suburb of a much larger city. My only previous exposure to our city council meetings was the taped transmissions that played intermittently on a local cable channel. I usually quickly flipped past their showings, though I occasionally would stop to watch for a few minutes. Whenever I did pause to watch part of a televised meeting, it seemed to me that the rest of my town was similarly uninvolved. Camera shots to the audience showed only a few of the passionate faithful in largely empty rooms.

Even considering it now, I’m not entirely sure why this is the case. Maybe it’s that suburbs have an easier time maintaining civic infrastructure given their proximity to large cities and the wealth that these big cities usually entail. Perhaps in larger towns it’s easier to pass the buck and believe that your neighbor will be the one to get involved while citizens like towns in Roanoke believe that you need to be the ones to make change happen.

In fact, the latter motivation is what compelled council member Tammi Holley to become involved in the Roanoke City Council. “I worked on a street that had a drug problem, and I couldn’t get anything done about it. After so long, I thought maybe I should run so that I could try to make the change I wanted,” she said.

Roanoke City HallHolley has represented District 1 since 1996 and says that it is her constituents that keep her involved in city government. “For me, it’s the people. I’m all about the people. Whenever I hear back from them about how grateful they are— and I actually have a message on my phone right now from a constituent— that’s what keeps me coming back,” Holley said.

Holley serves alongside four other council representatives—Mack Arthur Bell, Terry Cole, Russ Cummings, and Mike Parmer and Mayor Mike Fisher. She said that this group is dedicated to working toward a better Roanoke.

When asked about her vision of the future of Roanoke and Randolph County, Holley said, “I’d like to see some type of quality healthcare, whether that’s a hospital or a free-standing ER. I want to work with the Economic Development Authority to bring more industry to the area so that people that travel for work won’t have to go as far. I’d like to do some more repaving of our streets, as we’re doing currently, and I’d like some more recreation for our children.”

Though July 13 may have been my first council meeting, I don’t think it will be my last. I’m learning this summer that civic engagement and good citizenship mean more than simply getting involved in the macro-issues and hot-button topics. I think being a good citizen means being involved in the run-of-the-mill, day-to-day issues. Indeed, as people like Ms. Holley show us, maybe that’s where good citizenship is seen most.

Last Updated: July 23, 2015