"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson


We as Americans all remember being taught when we were young about our nation's founders, the patriots who stood up to the tyranny of the crown of England, the drafters of the declaration of independence, the constitution, and the bill of rights, the documents that became the framework for a system of governance that they believed would maintain a balance of power within a truly representative government, that would preserve the basic rights and liberties of the people, let their voice be heard, and provide to them a government, as Lincoln later put it, "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

What we may not be so quick to recall, however, is that there was much debate between the founding fathers as to what model our system of government should follow. Those such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry on one side favored a pure and direct democracy with the legislative power vested in the very hands of the people, while others such as James Madison, John Adams and George Washington held that a representative democracy would better serve the people than a true democracy because they believed it would protect the individual liberties of the minority from the will of the majority. Alexander Hamilton even went so far as to support the creation of a monarchy. In the end, those favoring representative democracy won the day and that is the system they put in place in the hopes of creating a "more perfect union."

Now we must ask ourselves, what would the founding fathers think if they were resurrected today to see what has become of their vision? One can only assume that they would begin to search for modern day patriots to meet them once again at the liberty tree in order to plan a new struggle for freedom and self governance. Although we continue to praise and honor those who founded our nation and sought to create a truly just form of government for it, do we really stop to reflect on whether we as a nation have in fact succeeded in preserving what they fought so hard to create?

Today, in contrast to our revolutionary ancestors, we as citizens of the United States generally observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. Over the decades and centuries we have allowed the erosion of the ideals of the founding fathers and the corruption of the principles which they enshrined in those so carefully conceived documents. We have been left with essentially no real power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. We may write an occasional letter to our senator or representative that generates a form letter in response and a statistical data entry that may or may not be weighed against the influence of some powerful corporate lobby. We may be permitted to participate in a march or demonstration of thousands or even millions, something our patriots of old would have marvelled at, only to be dismissed as a 'focus group' with no bearing on policy decisions.

How then is the government held accountable to the voice of the people? Are the people meant to speak only at the polls when given a choice between a select few candidates that may be equally corrupt? No, as Jefferson and his allies rightly believed, the people should be heard much more than that.

In spite of their good intentions, the system of representative democracy that the founding fathers opted for has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

We have become so accustomed to this failed system of representative democracy that it may not occur to us that there are other alternative forms of democracy. In various places around the world participatory or direct democracy has been instituted both in concert with representative democracy, and as a replacement for it. It is a form of democracy that is designed to take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and to politically empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the concept of participatory democracy and how this grass-roots based form of governance could help bring us back in line with the principles this country was founded upon if it were allowed to take root here. In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…



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Sunday, June 22, 2008


Public forums for city planning such as this one in Princeton, Kentucky are a way of increasing participatory democracy in cities and towns across the United States. This kind of invitation to be heard within the political process inspires residents to take more interest and assume more responsibility in the formation of policy that will shape their community's future. It is a practice that should be far more widespread and would serve as a means of political empowerment for those who currently feel they have no say in political decisions that affect them directly. Rather than continuing to leave their futures solely in the hands of elected representatives, public forums such as these could be an important first step towards greater citizen participation. - Editor

Community forum charts city future

Times Leader Staff Report

Community members took the first steps toward plotting the city’s future during a “Focus on Our Future” forum at the UK Research and Education Center Thursday night.

About 50 people attended the forum, the first of its kind held in the city in more than 10 years.

“This is not, tonight, an academic exercise,” said facilitator Dr. Darryl Armstrong, of Armstrong and Associates, an award-winning consulting firm based in Eddyville.

“It’s developing a vision for what you want your community to be in the future,” he said. “This is truly participatory democracy this evening.”

After an opening discussion, participants broke into smaller groups to brainstorm answers to three main questions related to the community’s future:

• What do you want Prince­ton and Caldwell County to look like, feel like and be like three to five years from now?

• If money were no object, what things would you like to see the community, working in collaboration with the government, do in the areas of education, recreation, health services, social needs, economic, community and tourism development, culture and the arts, environment, and police protection/crime/public safety?

• What things do we need to do in our community to make it a better place to work, live, play and visit?

Armstrong, assisted by co-facilitators Kay Armstrong and Cammie Evans, told the crowd that making the changes they sought could be done in cooperation with, not opposition to, local government.

“You don’t have to turn around your local government, because your local governments are coming to you and asking for input,” he said.

The forum was sponsored by the City of Princeton and the Main Street/Renaissance Program.

Results of the groups’ discussions suggested some common desires: additional local collegiate opportunities, better dining options, improved roads, expanded healthcare and childcare services, etc.

When the groups reconvened into one large group, Armstrong gave the crowd electronic handheld devices to allow them to vote anonymously on some new questions.

The first required participants to think of the community in the metaphor of an animal: either a lion (aggressive), an elephant (intelligent but slow to move), a gazelle (fleet of foot) or none of the above.

When asked how they perceived the community, nearly half of those responding chose “elephant.”

Armstrong said that answer almost always prevailed in the other groups and communities he worked with across the nation.

“Unfortunately, in our society, perception is the reality,” he said.

Participants then voted on the importance of improving in each of the eight areas discussed in the earlier breakout sessions, on a scale of 1 to 5.

A one vote meant improving in that area was irrelevant, while a five meant improvement in that area was very important.

The average response in nearly every area was above a four, with education topping the list.

“Anything above a three is pretty doggone important,” said Armstrong.

“Even the lowest one on the scale is 3.83, and that’s cultural arts. Anything above three needs to be seriously considered in this process.”

The third set of questions asked participants to gauge how well the community is performing now in the same areas.

The scale ranged from 1 to 9, with one meaning no performance, five being moderate and nine meaning perfect.

Education earned a 5.34 vote, the highest returned.

Responses in the other seven areas ranged between three and five.

Armstrong said some of the suggestions mentioned could be answered relatively quickly, in six to nine months.

Others would be more long-term goals, he said.

Any action would be positive, he noted.

“The more that you do, the more excitement that you build in the community,” he said. “The bottom line is, perceptions can be changed.”

“This is literally the community coming together, coming together to do the right thing at the right time and to move the community forward.”

In the next 10 days, he said, the firm will summarize the results of the meeting and provide a draft report to Mayor Gale Cherry and the city council.

A strategic planning committee will then be appointed; sign-up sheets were distributed at Thursday’s forum.

Armstrong and his associates will work with the committee to draft a “road map” for the community and seek public feedback.

A final report will then be completed and published, he said, and recommended the city issue a yearly report card to inform the community on how its goals were being achieved.

“The communities that have a plan in place are the communities that will grow and prosper, even in these difficult economic times,” he said. “We’ve seen it over and over and over again … it is time for citizens to understand they have to work in that process to make it better.”

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