Biting the Ear That is Lent to Us

This is pretty rich: the head of Philadelphia's white-collar union is accusing Mayor Nutter's budget forums of being "a public-relations ploy." The logic here is that if the general public is misled into believing that the City is really struggling financially, that lessens the union's leverage when negotiating its contracts later this year.

Never mind that the whole world is in recession. Or that, chastened by the virulent response to proposed library cuts that were seen as being decided on behind closed doors, the Nutter administration is bending over backwards to give average citizens a sense of the tough budget-related choices that need to be made: if we cut police by 10 percent, how many uniforms does that mean, and how much savings will we achieve, for example.

Also joining in on the outcry was a neighborhood advocate, who made this brazen statement: "We will not order off the menu that is handed to us by the mayor and the budget office. We are going to write the menu." To be sure, democracy means rule of the people, by the people, and for the people; and the forums are designed to actively seek citizen input.

But the dog whistle I hear in this sentiment is: "I deserve to get the mix I want; and I'm going to make a stink if I don't get it." Never mind that Philadelphia is a city of 1.4 million residents, tens of thousands of businesses, and just as many special interest groups. Democracy doesn't mean everyone gets what they want; in fact, it means the opposite, in that it means that we're all in this together, and therefore have to make nuanced compromises that serve the greater good.

We can disagree so much that we move out, and that happens all the time; and we can also voice our dissent on behalf of ourselves and/or others. But ultimately, there is no free lunch, and after the opinions are expressed and the trade-offs weighed, tough decisions will have to be made. For a mayor who learned his lesson from the library cuts and is ardently trying to do better this time around, he deserves some credit, even if we have every right to use these forums to chew his senior staff's ears off. But to mock these avenues for public participation as empty PR seems overly cynical.
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