Michele Murphy opinion column

Michele Murphy

"All the power right now... or almost all the power right now happens off stage. And that leaves a lot of people wondering who is looking out for me."

Were you one of the Americans who asked that to yourself before U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, did during Judge Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings?

The senator delivered quite a civics lesson derived from the Constitution and peppered with his opinion that things in government aren’t working because the legislative branch "punted" its responsibilities.

Last summer Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona made a similar statement during one of his last appearances on the Senate floor.

Given the proliferation of lobbyists, donors and special-interest groups attempting to influence state and federal law and policy, my strong hunch is Sasse’s assertion that power happens off stage is correct.

We hire legislators to work for us when we vote them into office. Why aren’t we doing a better job of supervising the productivity, fidelity and ethics of people we hired to work on our behalf? If the lawn care company kills the grass or the cleaners seem unable to make our houses sparkle, are we hiring them again?

Some might argue existing laws make government work and be transparent – sunshine laws, public records retention or public record request laws. The Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, stated in its 2017 handbook for policymakers that despite the laws and the American people’s desire for their government to be transparent, it is not easy to do.

Sasse had something to say about job descriptions last week, too. He walked his colleagues through the role of the legislative, executive and judicial branches as covered in articles 1, 2 and 3 of the Constitution.

Sasse placed blame for government ineffectiveness at the feet of fellow legislators from both parties. He said because they refuse to legislate out of a selfish desire to retain their jobs, they push their responsibilities off to the executive branch, which should be implementing laws. Executive branch extends far beyond the president to include dozens of bureaucratic "alphabet" agencies like FDA, CDC, FTC, EPA, IRS and DOJ, etc. Sasse went on to suggest that because Congress shirked its responsibilities, it contributed to the politicization of the judiciary, intended to be politically neutral, not "super legislators" complete with GOP red and Dem blue jerseys.

He did not say it, but I believe everything he said suggests we ought to be doing a better job of supervising our elected employees.

Frankly, it is hard to supervise from afar – letters, emails, phone calls to federal or state legislators' offices get no reply or a standardized reply. However, staff members track communications and share responses with their bosses.

Both State Sen. Gayle Manning (R-North Ridgeville) and Rep. Nathan Manning (R-North Ridgeville) hold local office hours. I attended one of Nathan Manning’s last year at Avon Lake Public Library. To be honest, I went in to either pick up or drop off books and saw him sitting alone. I had a 1:1 for nearly the full hour until two other people, also at the library for a different purpose, dropped in to say hello. Manning gets an "A" for effort. There should be a truancy program for us voters for not showing up.

There is no excuse for not being engaged at the local level. This is the branch of government you can reach out and touch, including at the grocery store, church or barber shop.

In recent weeks, Avon Lake residents have written, called and attended meetings with the mayor and council members and fellow residents concerning illegal fireworks, Avon’s gun range, stop signs to curb speeding on Legacy Pointe Parkway and fears over persistent flooding and public safety concerns arising from a proposed development on nine holes of Sweetbriar Golf Course.

I think where citizens hit the wall is that we don't know the most effective ways to engage elected officials on our issues. It is hard to hang in and remain positive when legislative bodies don't vote your way. I have been there. My issue was deer culling. For others, it has been legislation about council's subpoena powers, street repairs following sewer line work, vicious dogs, storage units, cell towers, Metro Parks' public bathroom near Belle Road Park or fancy mailboxes.

It is exhausting and frustrating, especially when you have devoted literally weeks of personal free time becoming better informed about issues in a search for viable alternatives for elected representatives to consider. Often it appears virtually impossible for any elected person to own up to a mistake or wrong-headed notion, even if it was really stupid.

I don't know if it is driven by ego, a vaunted notion that legislators know more than those who elected them, or undue influence from donors or other outside sources who hold sway over them and their vote. Regardless, we should never give up, but double down.

We need to look out for ourselves. It may not change the outcome in the end. However, if consistent, well-informed engagement causes second thoughts, sleepless nights or a pricked conscience among legislators, so be it. As Sasse suggested, if we don't like the job legislators are doing, fire them. Enough of underperforming apprentices.

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