Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Petition the Government

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right of citizens "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." The Obama Administration has taken that 18th century idea and applied 21st century technology to it. From the website:
Welcome to We the People on This tool provides you with a new way to petition the Obama Administration to take action on a range of important issues facing our country. If a petition gets enough support, White House staff will review it, ensure it's sent to the appropriate policy experts, and issue an official response.
Source: We the People.
After the jump, what our fellow citizens are petitioning the President
about, and my own one-man petition to our local government in

There are currently over 100 petitions submitted to the "We the People" website. They run the gamut,
... from the nationally important:
  • Support the FairTax legislation to grow our economy and benefit all Americans (5,597 Signatures)
  • Reform FHA, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to allow investment to respond to market demand (235 Signatures)
... to the narrow interests:
  • Protect the dunes sagebrush lizard under the Endangered Species Act (9,665 Signatures)
  • Recognize the contribution of Flemish Americans to the establishment and settlement of America (208 Signatures)
... to the contradictory:
  • Recognize the Syrian National Council (3,872 Signatures)
  • List the Syrian National Council as terrorist group (325 Signatures)
... to the frivolous:
  • Take Petitions Seriously (4,219 Signatures)
  • We demand a vapid, condescending, meaningless, politically safe response to this petition (9,272 Signatures)
... to the, shall we say, classics:
  • Immediately disclose the government's knowledge of and communications with extraterrestrial beings (5,387 Signatures)
Apparently, the number of signatures on this last petition met the White House's threshold to earn it an official response from Phil Larson, who works on space policy and communications at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy:
The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race. In addition, there is no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public's eye.
Source: We the People.
Learning about the Obama Administration's efforts to use communication technology to open new channels of communications with Americans, I couldn't help but think of my past efforts to encourage the City of Richardson to do similar things. I asked the city to devote a web page to posting responses to issues raised during the visitors section of council meetings, during which individuals get five minutes each to speak directly to the city council about any matter of concern to them. So far, nothing's changed. Texas law forbids council members from using meeting time to discuss issues not on the agenda, and, for most issues, no one seems interested in responding publicly after the meeting.

Surely, if the White House can assign someone to say that the US Government isn't hiding from the American public the existence of talks with little green men, then Richardson city hall can assign someone to correct the many misconceptions regularly raised about Richardson government.

Rather than giving up, I'm now upping my request from responding to issues raised during visitors section to setting up a web site similar to the Obama Administration's "We the People" website, where Richardson residents can publicly petition the city. Make it easy for citizens to do what the US Constitution says they have a right to do, and, also importantly, let us see just how much support the petitioners can gather for their demands.


mccalpin said...

I sympathize with your would be nice if sincere people could have a mechanism to ask a question and get it answered by a competent authority...the difficulty is that there are those people who really don't want an answer but who want to pontificate their views without regard to the facts of the case.

You saw that happen at the recent League of Women Voters program on the Charter where a local attorney tried to interrupt the proceedings to claim that one of the panelists was wrong about something that he wasn't wrong about...and since the lawyer brought a whole sheaf of papers to the event which he tried to present, it was clear that he came to argue the point, not listen to the competent authority (in this case, a former mayor of Richardson who had also served on the last Charter Commission).

This is precisely the reason that the Council (and nearly every Council in the area) limits a person's input to 5 minutes in the Visitors Section...because without that limit, certain people would try to hijack the public process for their own ends.

However, since it's not good to point out the problem without offering a solution, how about this...we see that recently, you asked on this blog the questions of "what is a balanced budget?" and "does the City have a balanced budget?" You asked these questions in a sincere and open frame of mind and admitted even as you asked the questions that maybe the legal definition of "balanced budget" was different than the common one.

As you saw, RumorCheck took this question and presented information on the Charter's language, State law, and the nature of non-profits (and how municipal non-profits are required to run a "deficit" when their reserves exceeds publicly agreed to targets). You were certainly free to accept or decline the explanation, but at least you now had ample references to the statutes and to the non-profit practices to evaluate whether or not the City's practice makes sense.

Would this be a beneficial sort of interim solution, to present this type of question to RumorCheck? Yes, I normally address "rumors", but answering legitimate questions would actually be a pleasant change.

I know that the City staff and Council would be delighted to have the voters better informed on how things actually work...


mccalpin said...

As a Postscript, I guess we should differentiate between questions of law and questions of fact...

That is, rumors are often, "so-and-so did such-and-such unethical or criminal act" the law, this is a question of fact, and this sort of thing comprises many of the rumors that RumorCheck researches.

But a question of law is something like "does State law require that a home rule city have a balanced budget?" This can be asked and answered dispassionately, and avoid the acrimonious bickering that we so often see...

Questions of law lend themselves to the deep research of the statutes as well as relevant court cases...just the sort of thing that RumorCheck does in much more detail that the average blog that throws out statements without a lot of thought...of course, Mark, I don't mean to paint all blogs with the same broad brush, but I think you'll agree that it is really difficult to post content every day on a blog and do in-depth research at the same time (the reason why RumorCheck isn't a blog nor publishes every day)...

So RumorCheck could provide a new service:
* answering questions (is this statement of 'fact' true?)

along with the current services:
* review of rumors (so-and-so did such-and-such)
* editorials (statements of opinion by RumorCheck)

Make sense?


Mark Steger said...

Bill, thanks for the feedback. I appreciate the service provided by in investigating rumors and would welcome any expansion of the service to answering questions as well. I understand how separating the two can sometimes get confusing. Did so-and-so do such-and-such, and is such-and-such legal, are two different questions.

I would still like the city government to provide official responses to issues raised at council meetings and to create a communication channel in which residents can petition the city. I'm not insisting that the channel meet the legal standards of a petition as used in the city charter or state law. I'm just suggesting ways the city can meet the council's agreed goals to elevate the city's two-way communications to deeply engage residents and to utilize new technologies to do so.