COLUMBIA — Here in the land of the free, we celebrate Independence Day with fireworks, picnics, baseball and the occasional reflection on just what the Continental Congress bequeathed us 237 years ago.
One of our most cherished rights as citizens, codified a few years after 1776 in the First Amendment to the Constitution, is the freedom to assemble peaceably and petition our rulers for redress of grievances.
Another, not written down anywhere as far as I know, is the right not to participate in the whole governing process.
Both were on display during a pleasant Monday evening down at the Daniel Boone City Building.
I was a few minutes early for the City Council meeting, so I was happily distracted when I encountered a small peaceable assembly in front of the entrance. There were a couple of faces familiar to any regular council observer, but the attention-getter was two people with guitars and a guy squatting behind a bongo drum.
It turned out that these were petitioners whose grievance was the city’s announced plan to buy several vehicles powered by natural gas. The problems for the grievants were that natural gas isn’t a renewable resource and that the process by which much of it is extracted is both energy consuming and methane producing.
For a few minutes, a handful of us were treated to a song, written for the occasion, about the evils of hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking.” The writer and soloist told me she’s a lawyer and a Journalism School dropout. To those qualifications, she added a pleasant singing voice.
Later, inside the hall, 10 citizens exercised their right to voice their objections to the city's plan with passion but no guitar accompaniment. They urged consideration of electric vehicles and more emphasis on solar power. They were heard. Sixth Ward representative Barbara Hoppe asked the staff to prepare a response.
Another issue raised the right of nonparticipation. Council members voted to put off until August formal action on the “Columbia Imagined” master plan that has been in the works for more than three years. Between now and then, there’ll be a work session for questions and fine-tuning.
One of the questions will be how to stir up more public involvement. So far, no more than 1 percent of the city’s 110,000-plus residents has attended a session or completed an online questionnaire. (And that count may exaggerate. I suspect I’m not the only good citizen who did both.)
Fifth Ward representative Laura Nauser worried about the number of the uninvolved. Maybe some sort of door-to-door canvass is needed, she suggested. Her colleagues appeared to be equally concerned.
I’m not sure there’s really much to worry about. Even in a community with a citizenry that’s often engaged, most people are too caught up in trying to make a living, raising their kids and coping with the day-to-day challenges of survival to spend much time or energy on something as abstract as a master plan.
Most of us are willing to trust our elected leaders to come up with reasonable guidelines. If they don’t, we reserve the right to remove them.
For every Monta Welch, who organized the anti-fracking protest and heads a low-key “People’s Visioning” program, there are 100 who choose to exercise their right of nonparticipation.
When the council gets around to rewriting the zoning code and otherwise putting the plan’s principles into practice, the activists will be out in force. And most of us will stay home again.
We shouldn’t forget that the “unalienable rights” of which Thomas Jefferson wrote, were – and are – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
That pursuit and that liberty take free people in different directions. If most prefer real fireworks to the metaphorical kind, Mr. Jefferson would probably be OK with that.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.