Picture credit - Jeremy Spencer, AllOnGeorgia Contributor.

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of AllOnGeorgia.

The controversial ordinances are coming up for a vote on Thursday in St. Marys, but these ordinances have been cooking for about two years. Now, many who normally do not pay attention to the workings of City Hall – to use a Millennial slang word – are now “woke.”

Citizens have organized, tipped off the local and regional news organizations, and started social media and email campaigns, and the Planning Board chair recently announced his resignation before the day of the vote. A grassroots movement has indeed begun.

There are many phrases and words that can describe the sleepy electorate of St Marys voters and why many voters outside of the West St. Marys voting precinct (mainly Osprey Cove & Shadowlawn areas of St. Marys) do not vote as often –

  • Busy
  • My vote does not count
  • Disenfranchised
  • Candidates do not reflect my values
  • Can’t get to the polls
  • Not enough knowledge
  • Safe seat residents
  • Apathetic

The list could go on. Something tells me this may no longer be the case…

But one thing is clear, these newly proposed ordinances have galvanized this community and have people paying attention more than I have ever seen.  I consider myself a strong voter when it comes to national, state, and some local elections. However, in recent years, as it relates to municipal elections, I have not voted. I felt as if my vote did not count or that there were too many safe-seat candidates that live within an area of much stronger voter turnout. That area of the city always turns out to elect their “guy” or “gal”.

Well, as the popular phrase goes: “If you do not get involved with politics, it will certainly involve you.”  And now it has.

This is surely the case with the recently proposed “homeowners association-like” building and zoning ordinances. Yes, there were many public hearings and times to give input. There were surveys and campaigns to get others to respond.  But like many of my fellow citizens, I thought to myself – would it matter?  To answer that now, yes. It matters and “we the people” have to do a better job overseeing our locally elected officials and appointed boards.

For many years, there has been a West St. Marys stronghold on the electorate of St. Marys with voter turnout consistently above 50 percent while the outlying voting precincts turnout barely strives to hit 20 percent.  Kudos to those voters – they are motivated and see the power of their voice.

There could be only one answer for this – voter apathy.  We are now seeing the actions of letting safe-seat candidates control the community boards and city council seats. We only have ourselves to blame. We should get involved with our local community boards.  When appointments expire, we should apply to be on a board. Get to know your Councilman and Mayor. Communicate with them and help them make the community better by attending planning meetings and providing real solutions to problems that face our community – without condemnation. Public service can be a thankless job sometimes.

Of course, there will always be those that say they have tried, but the “Safe Seat” crowd does not care. In a lot of instances, that could be true. Now, St. Marys citizens have a chance to turn the tide. Those of us who have watched things develop for a long time are seeing a “pollical shift”, but that shift will only change the outcome if the community stays engaged and voter turnout is good. Otherwise, the “Safe-Seat” crowd stays in power because they remain engaged.

If people are tired of the “Safe Seat” candidates, then run for office or recruit others to run that may make a difference instead of sitting on the sidelines.

There are many that feel such efforts will go in vain and espouse to breaking the city up into voting districts, instead of having at-large posts, would lead to fairer representation. It may, but an engaged citizenry would still have to recruit a candidate. Possibly, this form of representation could lead to fairer demographic representation. Again, voter turnout and candidate recruitment will remain a challenge. Bottom line – people still have to get out and vote.

Reviewing the input of the master plan shows the apathy of our own community in great detail.  Let’s look at that using data from the St Marys master plan (See survey excerpts of data below article).

The city conducted a survey and about 600 responses came back to the city for input on the master plan, which reflects a change in the building and zoning codes for future growth. Most of those responses came from the West St. Marys voting stronghold. Well, at least they are engaged and involved.

According to the master plan, 60 percent of the population is under 40 years old. However, most of the people who completed the survey were over the age of 50, 90 percent report being white, and live mainly in Osprey Cover or near Downtown.

According to the U.S. Census data for St. Marys, over 20 percent make up people over the age of 50, whites represent about 72 percent while blacks represent about 17 percent of the city’s population.

The survey’s responses do not truly reflect the income levels, ages, and other important demographics that make up the population of St. Marys; HOWEVER, such policy is being made from the responses the city government receives from those who participate.

Again, this is OUR fault as residents. We let the “Safe Seat” area of the city control the policy of the city.

We get the government we deserve.

When people are offered a choice that is merely the illusion of choice and they begin to see that regardless of different faces and grand promises, little seems to change in the big picture, the natural forces of apathy and disillusionment will take hold, and the status quo remains unchanged.

The question then, is this: What now? What can we do?

Big ships turn slowly, and nothing will ever get done by saying that there is nothing we can do about it. So, the answer is to change our mindset. Be involved. Apply to be on the Planning Board, the Hospital Authority, Downtown Development Authority and any other board that is offered.  Check the city calendar – the city updates it constantly.  Lobby your councilmember and the mayor. Become disruptive in a positive way.

In the end, the only way to do anything is to do something, even if it’s just going down to cast a vote during election season.

We have more power than they know – use it for the good of our city.

The Planning Board meets at 5:30 pm Thursday (June 14) at St. Marys City Hall. #StayWoke.

Related survey information:

Related article-

St Marys Planning Board Chair resigns before controversial vote

Citizens fight ordinances, Planning Board Chair could vote despite leaving St. Marys

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